Tyson Foods has been fined for “wilfully violating” safety regulations that led to a worker’s death at its River Valley Animal Foods plant in Texarkana, Arkansas.

A US District Court in Arkansas ordered the meat company to pay the maximum fine of US$500,000 and serve a one-year probation.

According to the court documents, Tyson recycled poultry products into protein and fats for the animal food industry at four plants.

As part of the rendering process, the company used high-pressure steam processors, called hydrolyzers. Decomposition of biological material produces hydrogen sulfide gas, an acute-acting toxic substance. Employees at the Tyson facilities were “often” exposed to the toxic gas when working on or near the hydrolyzers.

As of October 2003, corporate safety and regional management were aware of the danger presented by the gas and three of the four facilities with hydrolyzers took measures to protect employees. However, the court found Tyson did not take “sufficient steps” to protect employees at the fourth facility. 

As a result, the court said RVAF maintenance employee Jason Kelley was overcome with hydrogen sulfide gas on 10 October 2003. He later died.

Another employee and two emergency responders were hospitalised due to exposure during the rescue attempt. Two employees also were treated at the scene.

“Federal laws require employers to undertake steps that limit exposure to dangerous substances like the gas that killed Jason Kelley. Today, Tyson Foods is paying the maximum fine for failing to abide by these laws,” said John Cruden, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

“The Justice Department takes its enforcement responsibility seriously and companies that ignore these laws and risk their employees’ lives will be prosecuted,” he warned.