Sustained Outrage

Chemical board punts on dust explosions


In a Tuesday, June 24, 2008 file photo, a crane swinging a 7000 lb. ball continues the demolition of the 3 100-foot-tall silos at the Imperial Sugar Refinery in Port Wentworth, Ga., damaged in a 2008 explosion that killed 14 workers and injured 36 others.(AP Photo/Savannah Morning News, Steve Bisson, File)

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is taking some serious heat again today, this time for its decision to not repeat its previous recommendations that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration write tough standards regulating combustible dust in America’s workplaces.

Several labor organizations blasted the CSB for not including that recommendation in its report, issued today, on the February 2008 explosion that killed 14 workers at the Imperial Sugar refinery near Savannah, Ga.

Jackie Nowell, occupational safety and health director for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said:

The CSB’s leadership is a remnant of the Bush administration’s dangerous legacy for America’s workers. If the board continues to ignore its obligation to oversee the scope of our safety regulations, it will require new leadership to assure that its mission is accomplished.

The CSB is still pretty popular here in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia, having gotten part of the credit for Bayer CropScience’s decision to dramatically cut its huge stockpile of deadly methyl isocyanate out at the Institute plant.  But I’ve written recently about the board backing off its earlier recommendation that OSHA and EPA move quickly to regulate the dangers of highly reactive chemicals, and about the board’s rejection of its own staff’s recommendation for emergency safety warnings about how workers purge gas lines.

And last night, I wrote another piece — with lots more background on the combustible dust issue — on how today’s Imperial Sugar report was Another big test for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

Briefly, the board has been pushing for OSHA action to regulate combustible dust since a major 2006 report by the board’s expert staff documented 281 combustible dust fires and explosions between 1980 and 2005 that killed 119 workers and injured 718.

In today’s report, board investigators concluded that the Imperial disaster:

… Resulted from ongoing releases of sugar from inadequately designed and maintained dust collection equipment, conveyors, and sugar handling equipment. Inadequate housekeeping practices allowed highly combustible sugar dust and granulated sugar to build up throughout the refinery’s packing buildings.

And according to the board’s summary, investigators also found:

The first explosion – known as a “primary event” – likely occurred inside a sugar conveyor located beneath two large sugar storage silos. The conveyor had recently been enclosed with steel panels creating a confined, unventilated space where sugar dust could accumulate to an explosive concentration. Sugar dust inside the enclosed conveyor was likely ignited by an overheated bearing, causing an explosion that traveled into the adjacent packing buildings, dislodging sugar dust accumulations and spilled sugar located on equipment, floors, and other horizontal surfaces. The result was a powerful cascade of secondary dust explosions that fatally injured 14 workers and injured 36 others, many with life-threatening burns. The refinery’s packing buildings were largely destroyed by the blasts and ensuing fires.

CSB Investigation Supervisor John Vorderbrueggen, who led the 19-month investigation, said in a statement:

Imperial’s management as well as the managers at the Port Wentworth refinery did not take effective actions over many years to control dust explosion hazards – even as smaller fires and explosions continued to occur at their plants and other sugar facilities around the country.

And incredibly:

The CSB report said that the sugar industry was familiar with dust explosion hazards at least as far back as 1925. Internal correspondence dating from 1967 showed that Port Wentworth refinery managers were seriously concerned about the possibility of a sugar dust explosion that could “travel from one area to another, wrecking large sections of a plant.” Precursor events included a 1998 explosion at Imperial’s plant in Sugar Land, Texas; an explosion at the Domino Sugar plant in Baltimore in November 2007; and two sugar dust explosions in the 1960’s that killed a total of ten workers. However, Imperial management did not correct the underlying causes of the sugar dust problem at the Port Wentworth facility, where workers testified that spilled sugar was knee-deep in places on the floor, and sugar dust had coated equipment and other elevated surfaces.

All of this led John Bresland, the board chairman, to say:

Dust explosions can be among the deadliest of industrial hazards, particularly inside heavily occupied buildings. But these explosions are readily prevented through appropriate equipment design and maintenance and rigorous dust-cleaning programs. I call upon the sugar industry and other industries to be alert to this serious danger.

There’s more coverage of the CSB report available from the local newspaper, the Savannah Morning News, including video of today’s board press conference here. And I’ve uploaded the board’s new video on Imperial Sugar to YouTube:

Today’s report, to be voted on at a CSB meeting tonight, includes a series of recommendations to Imperial, the broader sugar industry, and industry insurers.  But, it doesn’t restate the board’s recommendation that OSHA adopt combustible dust rules to govern not just the sugar industry — but all American workplaces where dangerous, explosive dust is a threat.

Asked to explain why that recommendation was missing, Bresland said:

OSHA announced it was going to start the regulatory program … and we hope that OSHA will give this program priority and develop the regulations as soon as possible.

Interestingly, Besland himself voted against recommending OSHA develop standards when the board considered that action back in November 2006.  Bresland said Thursday he thought at the time that industry education measures would be adequate. The devastation he saw during a visit to Imperial Sugar after the explosion changed his mind, Bresland said.

Labor groups are pleased that the Obama administration has said it will write combustible dust standards. They are happy with the appointment of acting OSHA chief Jordan Barab, who was a CSB staffer when the 2006 dust study was done. But labor and safety advocates were also hoping that the CSB would do what it’s supposed to do: That is, nudge OSHA along, in particular by advocating that the agency adopt an emergency temporary standard on dust safety while a more detailed permanent rule is developed.

Eric Frumin, health and safety coordinator for the labor group Change to Win, said today:

As recently as 2006, the CSB recommended to the Congress that OSHA adopt a comprehensive new standard on combustible dust, but today they let that ball drop.