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OSHA begins inspection of Willmar, Minn., Jennie-O plant

WILLMAR, Minn. -- An investigator from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began work Monday at the Jennie-O Turkey Store processing plant in Willmar, Minn., where more than two dozen employees became ill Friday evening.

WILLMAR, Minn. -- An investigator from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began work Monday at the Jennie-O Turkey Store processing plant in Willmar, Minn., where more than two dozen employees became ill Friday evening.

The first goal of OSHA's inspection is to gather information and determine what might have caused the mass medical situation, says James Honerman, spokesman for the state's OSHA division, part of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry.

"Minnesota OSHA Compliance will ... review what factors contributed to or caused the incident and then determine whether existing OSHA standards were violated," Honerman says. "The goal is to reduce hazards to workers and avoid a recurrence of similar accidents."

A number of employees were sickened Friday night in an incident that was reported as a chemical leak at Jennie-O's facility on 30th Street Southwest in Willmar. Coughing and vomiting were among the symptoms reported.

The employees all worked in the same area of the plant, according to Pat Solheid, vice president of human resources and administration for Jennie-O Turkey Store. Solheid says production was halted for the safety of employees.

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Officials at Rice Memorial Hospital say seven ambulances and a bus were dispatched. Medical professionals began treating some employees in the bus at the scene.

Initial reports over the weekend had the number of employees affected as high as 31, but Wendy Ulferts, chief nursing officer at Rice, said Monday that 24 employees were treated in the emergency room and an additional four were triaged at the scene. One of the 24 treated at the hospital was admitted overnight and released Saturday.

The processing plant was tested Friday night for the presence of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and ammonia, but nothing unusual was found, according to Willmar Fire Chief Gary Hendrickson.

After Jennie-O Turkey Store internal safety personnel and Willmar fire officials inspected the plant Friday night and found no cause for the event, production was allowed to resume.

Honerman says an OSHA inspector first conducts a walkaround examination of the plant and identifies any potential safety and health hazards. An inspector during this examination also reviews safety and health practices, has private consultations with employees, collects air samples and monitors exposure to toxic fumes, gases and dusts.

Honerman says OSHA would aim to close the inspection within a few months and says if work hazards are found, citations or penalties from OSHA are possible.

"During the course of the inspection or at the closing conference, the investigator will point out to the employer any unsafe or unhealthful working conditions observed," Honerman says. "It is the responsibility of the employer to take notes on the unsafe and unhealthful conditions and begin correcting them as soon as possible."

The Jennie-O Turkey Store plant was not issued any citations during its last routine inspection in February 2013, according to OSHA records.

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Jennie-O Turkey Store has two processing plants located in Willmar and others in Faribault, Montevideo, Pelican Rapids and Barron, Wis.

According to Forum News Service archives, 46 Jennie-O employees were treated for eye and throat irritation in 2002 when 1 or 2 gallons of chlorine dioxide solution used to kill microbes in a chilling tank leaked onto the floor of a plant in Willmar.

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