Sustained Outrage

More silence from Obama OSHA on combustible dust

Thirty-nine-year-old Jeffrey Scott Fish (left) and his brother, 38-year-old James Eugene Fish, were two of the three workers who died in a Dec. 9, 2010, fire at AL Solutions in New Cumberland, Hancock County.

Over the weekend, the second anniversary came and went of a terrible fire that claimed the lives of three workers at a small metals recycling plant at New Cumberland, in Hancock County, W.Va. We published a lengthy Sunday story that recounted the tragedy:

At about 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 9, 2010, Jeffrey Scott Fish, James Eugene Fish and Steven Swain were at work at AL Solutions, a small metals recycling plant along the Ohio River in New Cumberland.

Outside the Hancock County facility, witnesses heard a loud thud and metal hitting the floor. An explosion ripped through the building. Flames shot in all directions.

The two Fish brothers, 39 and 38 years old, died inside from heat and smoke inside the building. Swain, 27, made it out, but suffered burns over most of his body. He died four days later in a Pittsburgh hospital.

Work on this story started just before Thanksgiving, when I was really just trying to get an update on the planned release date for a U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigative report on the AL Solutions explosion and fire.   What I found out instead was that the CSB was basically planning top drop its work on the incident, and never release a public report of its investigation.

What it comes down to is that the CSB has investigated a lot of combustible dust tragedies already (see here, here and here, for example) and also issued a major report on the subject. Along with concerns about their small agency’s budget and staffing, the CSB just isn’t sure that they would learn that much more from completing work on the AL Solutions probe. As we reported:

“It fits into the broader problem with the lack of dust regulation in the United States,” said Daniel Horowitz, the board’s managing director. “I’m not sure how much impact one additional case has on that overall picture.”

Fireman battle a fire at AL Solutions after an explosion rocked the plant Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010 in New Cumberland, W.Va. Three workers were killed and one person was injured, police and company officials said Thursday. (AP Photo/The Review, Michael D. McElwain)

The most important recommendation from previous CSB examinations is that the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

Issue a standard designed to prevent combustible dust fires and explosions in general industry. Base the standard on current National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) dust explosion standards (including NFPA 654 and NFPA 484), and include at least

• hazard assessment,

• engineering controls,

• housekeeping,

• building design,

• explosion protection,

• operating procedures, and

• worker training.

After indicating early in President Obama’s first term that Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and OSHA planned to act on this recommendation, agency officials have slowly walked that back (see here, here and here). While I was reporting this story, I asked to interview OSHA chief David Michaels about the combustible dust issue. I never got a response to my request.

There was a time when then-Sen. Obama thought protecting workers from the dangers of combustible dust was an important issue:

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, the administration just doesn’t want to talk about it.