More silence on dust explosions from Obama OSHA

May 31, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

Once upon a time, then-Sen. Barack Obama thought protecting the nation’s workers from combustible dust explosions was pretty important, issuing a statement four years ago that said:

We must do everything we can to protect America’s workers and prevent terrible accidents, like the deadly explosion at Imperial Sugar earlier this year, that occur as a result of combustible dust. It’s long past time that OSHA issue a standard to prevent these kinds of accidents …

Now, as Obama’s fourth year as president of these United States stretches on, this is the best that the Center for Public Integrity’s Chris Hamby could get out of the U.S. Department of Labor about the status of Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards aimed at ending deadly dust explosions:

Top agency officials refused to explain the rule’s status. In a statement, OSHA said, “Prevention of worker injuries and fatalities from combustible dust remains a priority for the agency.” But, the statement said, developing the rule is “very complex,” and “could affect a wide variety of industries and workplace conditions. As a result it has been moved to long-term action to give the agency time to develop the analyses needed to support a cost-effective rule.”

Does anybody even know what all of that means?

Chris Sherburne seemed to. She lost her husband, Wiley, in a January 2011 dust explosion at the Hoeganaes Corp. metal powder plant 30 miles northeast of Nashville.  As Chris Hamby reported:

News of OSHA’s decision reached Chris Sherburne at the end of January, around the first anniversary of her husband’s death. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “You put it on the back burner, and that’s where it’s going to stay.”

Her frustration is shared by victims’ families who have seen other health and safety rules similarly stalled, shelved or eviscerated. Whether it’s combustible wood dust at a sawmill, disease-inducing beryllium at an aluminum smelter or lung-wrecking silica at an iron foundry, OSHA allows workers to face conditions that many experts and even the government’s own scientists consider unsafe.

OSHA’s statement said it is “committed to protecting workers,” but that “numerous steps in the regulatory process mean OSHA cannot issue standards as quickly as it would like.”

That’s just part of what Hamby reports in Unchecked dust explosions kill, injure hundreds of workers, the latest in a new series of Center for Public Integrity reports called Hard Labor, about the kinds of workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths that too often don’t get enough media coverage. Hamby explains:

Since 1980, more than 450 accidents involving dust have killed nearly 130 workers and injured another 800-plus, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data compiled by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Both agencies, citing spotty reporting requirements, say these numbers are likely significant understatements.

Yet a push to issue a rule protecting workers from the danger has stalled in the face of bureaucratic hurdles, industry pushback and political calculations, the Center for Public Integrity found.

Read the whole thing here, and check out previous Sustained Outrage coverage of the combustible dust issue — including a dust explosion that killed three workers in New Cumberland, W.Va. — here, here, here and here.

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