Three years after 14 of his constituents perished in a refinery explosion traced to combustible dust, a Georgia congressman is again trying to force the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue rules regulating combustible industrial dusts in the workplace.
Rep. John Barrow, a Savannah Democrat, introduced The Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act (H.R. 522) on Tuesday (Feb. 8) to require that OSHA develop rules regulating combustible industrial dusts that can build up to hazardous levels and explode.
The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the senior Democrat of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), the senior Democrat on the Workforce Protections Subcommittee.
Fatal Dust Explosions
Barrow’s district includes the site of a devastating blast Feb. 7, 2008, at the Imperial Sugar Refinery in Port Wentworth, GA. The massive explosion and fire killed 14 people, injured dozens and caused millions of dollars in property damage.
Federal investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) concluded that the explosion was fueled by “massive accumulations of combustible sugar dust throughout the packaging building.”
Two years before the disaster, the CSB criticized OSHA in a report for lack of preparation for such explosions and a safety program that "inadequately addresses dust explosion hazards.” The 2006 report identified 281 combustible dust incidents between 1980 and 2005 that killed 119 workers, injured 718 others, and extensively damaged industrial facilities.
Since the Imperial Sugar disaster, there have been 24 combustible dust explosions or fires nationwide, causing four deaths and 65 injuries, the bill’s sponsors said.
Rules Called Years Away
OSHA has begun developing rules, but they may not be ready for years, officials said. The new bill would give the agency fast-track rulemaking authority to develop protections on an interim basis.
“I visited the Imperial Sugar facility last week and saw the steps they've taken to improve their facility,” said Barrow. “But thousands of other factory workers around the country are at risk of a similar disaster. Other manufacturers need to improve their safety programs as well.”
Said Miller: “I commend OSHA for taking the first steps to protect workers and businesses from combustible dust explosions. However, because of red tape, workers won’t be fully protected from these explosions for many years. While some industries have taken steps to address these hazards, workers are still being killed and injured from preventable combustible dust explosions. Regulatory delays should never be an excuse not to protect workers from a preventable tragedy.”
The bill would:
• Streamline OSHA’s process for issuing an interim standard and direct OSHA to issue an interim final Combustible Dust standard within a year. The standard would include measures to minimize hazards associated with combustible dust through improved housekeeping, engineering controls, worker training and a written combustible dust safety program, and apply the relevant National Fire Protection Standards that call for dust control.
• Direct OSHA to issue a final standard within 18 months. OSHA would be required to include relevant parts of National Fire Protection Association standards. In addition to items required in the interim standard, the final standard would include requirements for hazard assessment, building design and explosion protection.
• Keep the interim standard in effect until the final standard is issued. OSHA would be required to fulfill all administrative rulemaking requirements including full public hearings, feasibility analysis and small business review as part of developing a final standard.
The bill faces an uphill battle in Congress. The Democratic-controlled House approved the legislation in 2009, but it did not reach a vote in the Senate. This year, Republicans control the House and have gained strength in the Senate.
Meanwhile, Georgia's two U.S. senators—Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson—do not support the bill, reports the Savannah Morning News.
Barrow spokeswoman Jane Brodsky acknowledged the long odds, but “expressed hope for the legislation,” the newspaper reported.
"The makeup of the Congress has changed," she told the paper, "but the issue remains the same, and the danger posed by combustible dust has not become less of a threat since 2008.”
On Wednesday night, Barrow Tweeted: “Worker safety trumps partisan lines. I hope Ds and Rs come together to pass the worker safety bill I introduced today.”