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OSHA investigation into sudden illness at Jennie-O Turkey Store plant yields nothing

Emergency personnel attend to ill employees Oct. 17 at Jennie-O Turkey Store in Willmar. The Occupational Safety and Health Division finished its investigation last week, but did not identify any health hazards. (TRIBUNE/Tom Larson/File)

WILLMAR — An investigation completed last week by the Occupational Safety and Health Division reportedly did not identify any health hazards at the Jennie-O Turkey Store plant where dozens of employees fell ill in October.

While the mass medical situation at the Willmar plant was thought to have been caused by a chemical leak, OSHA’s investigation did not detect abnormal chemical levels within the building, according to the report.

OSHA investigators were not able to determine the cause of the mass medical situation Oct. 17 at Jennie-O plant 4, located at 1530 30th St. Southwest in Willmar. A total of 24 employees were hospitalized that evening for symptoms such as vomiting, coughing and difficulty breathing.

Pat Solheid, Jennie-O Turkey Store vice president for human resources and administration, said in a statement issued Monday afternoon that OSHA’s report confirmed the company’s findings.

“The letter from OSHA confirmed our original finding that there was nothing out of the ordinary in the environment of the Willmar Avenue Plant on the evening of Oct. 17,” Solheid said. “Team members who weren’t feeling well that evening were provided medical attention in an abundance of caution, and we were pleased that most everyone was able to return to work the next day. Our plant resumed normal operations that same evening.”

RELATED: OSHA report on Oct. 17 incident at Jennie-O Turkey Store's Plant 4

The employees who fell ill Oct. 17 all worked in the Raw Meat Department of the plant, receiving turkeys on a conveyor system and cutting and sorting like parts into bins.

The OSHA investigation was conducted in this area Oct. 20 and again Nov. 5, the report states.

OSHA during its investigation did not detect any of the three chemicals used in the Raw Meat Department: ammonia, chlorine dioxide and carbon dioxide.

“The first two chemicals were immediately ruled out as the cause of the employee illness,” the report states. “Ammonia used in the refrigeration system was determined to be operating normally with no leaks at the time of the incident.

Chlorine dioxide, used as a disinfectant, was not in use at the time of the incident.”

Carbon dioxide, used to form dry ice to chill meat, was being used at the time of the medical situation.

The report states that the main health hazard of exposure to carbon dioxide — oxygen displacement — was not believed to have occurred.

Carbon dioxide levels were measured at 3,000 parts per million during the investigation.

OSHA’s carbon dioxide exposure limit is 10,000 parts per million, the report states.

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