Sustained Outrage

OSHA doesn’t want to talk about combustible dust

Four years ago today, a huge explosion and fire at the Imperial Sugar refinery northwest of Savannah, Ga., killed 14 people and injured 38 others. Fourteen of the injured suffered serious and life-threatening burns. The explosion was fueled by massive accumulations of combustible sugar dust throughout the packaging building. After the incident, here was one fascinating paragraph included in a U.S. Chemical Safety Board press release on the board’s investigation:

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.

The report marked one of many times that the CSB has recommended that the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration adopt a broad industry rule to protect American workers from all sorts of combustible dust. As explained in my previous post, Obama’s OSHA puts protecting workers from dangers of combustible dust on back burner:

The CSB first called for an OSHA regulation on combustible dust after issuing a 2006 report that identified 281 dust fires and explosions that killed 119 workers and injured 718 others nationwide between 1980 and 2005. In a November 2011 report, board investigators noted 17 other deaths in dust incidents the agency is examining, including three in a December explosion that killed three at the AL Solutions Inc. metals recycling plant in New Cumberland, Hancock County, W.Va.

There’s been some good news reporting in recent days about OSHA and the dust standard.

The Tennessean had this story:

The one-year anniversary today of the Hoeganaes Corp. combustible dust flash fire that killed 42-year-old Wiley Sherburne has been haunting his widow.

Castalian Springs resident Chris Sherburne has been dreading it for weeks, preparing to relive the moments she lost her husband all over again.

There are three times in particular that she anticipated would be especially painful on Jan. 31.

“I’ll get up Tuesday morning, and I’ll remember 6:37 a.m. when I got the first text from a friend of mine – that’s when I turned the TV on; then at 7:09 a.m., when Hoeganaes called me,” she said last week. “Those times are going to be marked.”

At 9:30 a.m., she’ll remember the moment at Vanderbilt Burn Center when she and her son Cody were told by doctors that her husband wouldn’t survive with burns covering 95 percent of his body.

“Coming up on the one-year anniversary, it is just as bad as the day it happened because it brings it all back,” she said. “This time last year I could say that he was still here and everything was normal, and in a couple days it’s going to be where nothing was normal.”

And then the Savannah Morning News had this:

She sat at her machine on the third floor of the Imperial Sugar Co. plant in Port Wentworth.

It was about 7:20 p.m., four years ago today.

She heard a faraway boom and another louder one, she told investigators. Then the room blew up.

Flames leaped at her. The blast tossed her head over heels. She landed more than a dozen feet away.

She crawled through rubble. Debris pinned another worker to the floor.

Some of the floor was gone. She saw exposed pipes and wiring. When she reached what she thought was a stairwell, it was gone, too.

Somehow, the woman — her name was blacked out on a federal report — found another stairwell. She survived.

But 14 people didn’t.

And finally, the AP put out a national story on OSHA’s inaction on combustible dust, reporting:

New safety rules will not be approved any time soon even though they could prevent accidents like the ones last year at a Tennessee metal powders plant, where fireballs fueled by iron dust contributed to five deaths.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration is developing rules that would require many industries to better control combustible dust hazards. The rules were recently moved to a long-term agenda, despite pleas from the Chemical Safety Board to put them on the fast track. The Chemical Safety Board investigated accidents Hoeganaes Corp., a plant near Nashville, where five people died a year ago.

“Hoeganaes should have made a believer out of everybody. It’s appalling what went on there,” said Bill Kauffman, a retired professor of aeronautical engineering with the University of Michigan.

Kauffman helped develop rules in the 1980s that have led to a steep decline in deaths from grain dust explosions and was an expert on a panel last May that discussed crafting the new regulations. He believes some officials at OSHA are trying to make them too complicated.

“They seem to be splitting hairs — ‘This dust. That dust.’ — Why don’t they just say ‘Anything that burns?'” he said.

Remarkably, here’s all the AP could get out of our nation’s Department of Labor about all of this:

OSHA spokeswoman Diana Petterson did not offer much explanation. She said the agency continues to develop the rules, and preventing worker injuries and deaths remains a priority. She would not discuss the matter further.

CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso certainly wants to discuss the matter further. The CSB issued this statement to mark the Imperial Sugar disaster’s anniversary:

CSB board members and investigation staff keep the memory of this tragedy close to us as we continue to advocate for changes in national workplace rules aimed at preventing such accidents in the future. We believe the safety recommendations that followed from our investigation of this accident will go far in saving lives. I am pleased to report that on this accident anniversary all but one of our recommendations have been successfully adopted by their recipients.

Specifically, the CSB called on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, to “proceed expeditiously” on our 2006 recommendation that OSHA promulgate a new combustible dust standard for general industry. We believe such a standard is necessary to reduce or eliminate hazards from fires and explosions from a wide variety of combustible powders and dust.

I am disappointed that OSHA has not moved forward on this recommendation. Completing a comprehensive OSHA dust standard is the major piece of unfinished business from the Imperial Sugar tragedy.

Here’s the CSB’s video of what happened at Imperial Sugar: