Sustained Outrage

Plant Explosion

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. (AP Photo/The Review, Michael D. McElwain)

We’ve written over and over here about the dangers of combustible dust and the inaction by the Obama administration on a U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule-making on the issue (see here, here, here and here).

Well, now the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has moved again to to encourage — to practically shame, really — OSHA into taking some sort of action. Here’s today’s announcement from a CSB meeting:

In a public meeting held here today, members of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board declared the response by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to seven longstanding recommendations – on combustible dust, fuel gas and the Process Safety Management standard – to be “unacceptable.”

And the kicker:

The Board also voted to make the adoption of a combustible dust standard for general industry to be the first priority in the CSB’s recently established “Most Wanted Safety Improvements” program, which will result in stepped-up advocacy for the measure. 

There’s more information here from today’s CSB meeting.

Moure FinalCSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso said:

Over the years, the CSB has made a number of recommendations to OSHA in the aftermath of tragic accidents that have killed dozens of workers, injured hundreds more, and caused millions of dollars in property damage.  We are particularly concerned with the lack of action on a much-needed combustible dust standard. Yet insufficient progress has been made, and many years have passed in some cases, without a definitive OSHA response. Today’s vote by the board  designating OSHA’s responses to be “open-unacceptable” means that we strongly believe these recommended regulatory changes are still needed to save lives and prevent accidents in the chemical industry. At the same time, we voted to keep the recommendations’ status as “open,” as we take heart in comments made by OSHA today that they may consider action in the future.

Some readers may recall that combustible dust was blamed by the CSB for a December 2010 fire and explosion that killed three workers at the AL Solutions facility up in New Cumberland, W.Va.  As we’ve written, the CSB has yet to issue a report on that incident. While the board is far from perfect, board members are trying to focus public and regulatory attention on the important issue regarding the dangers of combustible dust.

In response, OSHA enforcement director Thomas Galassi offered this status report on his agency’s combustible dust rulemaking:

OSHA has developed several regulatory alternatives, ranging from basic to comprehensive. The agency is also preparing the necessary materials and analyses for the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act review, which is scheduled to begin in November 2013. After the SBREFA meeting, OSHA will continue to work towards publishing the proposed rule.

Galassi continued, in a prepared statement to the CSB:

Because the rulemaking process is time consuming, OSHA has taken more rapid steps to ensure that workers are protected in the interim.  In October 2007, OSHA initiated a Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program (NEP).  In light of the Imperial Sugar dust explosion on February 7, 2008, OSHA expanded the NEP to focus on industries with more frequent and high consequence dust incidents.  The revised NEP includes 64 types of industries for inspection.  In addition, OSHA inspected all sugar refineries (Beet and Sugarcane) under Federal jurisdiction as part of the NEP. 

OSHA is taking, and will continue to take, strong enforcement actions to address combustible dust hazards.  Since the start of the NEP, OSHA and its state plan partners conducted over 3,700 inspections;  Identifying over 14,000 violations at facilities handling combustible dusts.  In the absence of a dedicated combustible dust standard, OSHA has a number of tools such as the general duty clause and the housekeeping standard to address combustible dust hazards.


In the interim, until  a final combustible dust standard is issued, the Agency’s strong and effective enforcement of existing regulatory and statutory requirements, combined with education and outreach to employers and employees, is helping to protect the safety and health of working men and women who may be exposed to combustible dust hazards.   OSHA is certain that rulemaking efforts that are currently underway will further reduce the potential combustible dust flash fires, deflagrations, and explosions.

But as the CSB said in its press release today:

The Board then voted OSHA’s response as “open-unacceptable” to four longstanding recommendations calling for the issuance and expedited action on a comprehensive general industry combustible dust standard. . 

The first of these recommendations was issued in 2006 following a CSB study on the hazards of combustible dust.  The study was initiated following a series of major explosions and fires with a large loss of life and numbers of burn injuries.  The CSB found companies ignoring the hazard or failing to take adequate action to mitigate the danger.  The Board advocated a new standard be based on existing National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) dust explosion standards. 

Three years later, in 2009, following an explosion of combustible sugar dust at the Imperial Sugar Company in Port Wentworth, Georgia, in 2008 killing 14 workers, the CSB called on OSHA to “proceed expeditiously”  on its then-announced intention to conduct rulemaking on a dust standard. 

In December 2011, the CSB again called on OSHA to move on a dust standard following a series of three iron-dust related flash fires at the Hoeganaes Corporation facility in Gallatin, Tennessee. Five workers lost their lives.  The CSB called for the inclusion of metal dusts in the scope of any new standard on dust, and recommended that OSHA issue a proposed rule within one year of the issuance of the recommendation.

The Board also designated the issuance of a general industry dust standard as the CSB’s first “Most Wanted Safety Improvement” — a program modeled after one at the National Transportation Safety Board.  It was the first time the CSB has made such a designation since approving the new advocacy program last year.  Designated recommendations in the program will be subject to more intense agency advocacy efforts.

Chairperson Moure-Eraso said

The Board has called on OSHA a number of times over the past several years to act on this known, insidious hazard that continues to claim the lives of workers and cause enormous damage and loss of jobs. It’s critical that OSHA address the recommendations.