Steve Hixon, the marketing director for the company, which employs 500 people, said several workers were taken to hospitals for evaluation after the 9:15 a.m. incident, which occurred in a processing room.
A spokeswoman for University Hospital said eight people were treated and released. Another person was treated and released at Georgia Regents Medical Center, a spokeswoman said.
“With any leak, we like to take precautionary measures,” Hixon said.
State regulators, including Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division, were notified of the mishap after the company reported it to the National Response Center database.
Frank Nederhand, an EPD Air Protection Branch environmental engineer who was in contact with plant officials, said the leak occurred in one of the meat-packing processing rooms, where large refrigeration units are suspended from the ceiling.
Each room has sensors to detect leaks. The evacuation began shortly after 9:15, when an emergency evacuation alarm sounded.
Operators sent to the roof isolated the room’s refrigeration units from the main system. By 10:30 a.m., the remaining ammonia refrigerant in the affected units had been pumped out and stored.
Initial calculations indicate the maximum amount of ammonia that could have been released during the leak was 56.5 pounds, he said.
A representative from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration was sent to the scene, said Michael D’Aquino, a spokesman for the agency’s regional office in Atlanta.
According to OSHA’s online database, the Augusta plant has been inspected regularly over the past five years and paid fines totaling $8,200 for four “serious” safety violations in 2008. It resolved a single violation in 2009 with fines of $2,975.
Ammonia is commonly used in refrigeration facilities, especially sites that process foods, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet.
“Effects of inhalation of ammonia range from irritation to severe respiratory injuries, with possible fatality at higher concentrations,” the fact sheet states. The material is corrosive and can cause serious, chemical-type burns. It migrates to moist areas of the body such as eyes, nose, throat, and moist skin areas.
Exposure to liquid ammonia can result in frostbite.