Five years after a combustible-dust explosion killed 14 workers in Georgia, legislators are again demanding that federal safety regulators set standards for such hazards.
The ‘‘Worker Protection against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act of 2013’’ (H.R. 691) would require that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issue a standard for regulating combustible industrial dusts.
The bill was introduced Tuesday (Feb. 12) by U.S. Reps. George Miller, D-CA.; John Barrow, D-GA; and Joe Courtney, D-CT.
Barrow's district includes the site of the devastating Imperial Sugar disaster of Feb. 7, 2008. Miller is the ranking member on the House Education and the Workforce Committee; Courtney is the senior Democrat of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee.
Photos: U.S. Chemical Safety Board
Five years after the combustible dust disaster at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Georgia, lawmakers are again urging OSHA to issue a national dust standard.
The final standard would have requirements for hazard assessment, building design, and explosion protection; an interim standard would be developed and implemented until final standard is issued.
Combustible Dust Dangers
"Any combustible material can burn rapidly when in a finely divided form," OSHA notes in a guidance document.
"If such a dust is suspended in air in the right concentration, under certain conditions, it can become explosible. Even materials that do not burn in larger pieces (such as aluminum or iron), given the proper conditions, can be explosible in dust form."
Sources of potentially combustible dust include food, grain, tobacco, plastics, wood, paper, pulp, rubber, furniture, textiles, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, dyes, coal, metals and fossil fuel power generation.
More than 280 combustible dust incidents between 1980 and 2005 killed 119 workers, injured 718, and extensively damaged numerous industrial facilities, OSHA said. The agency issued a Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program in 2008.
A 'Very Serious Issue'
On Feb. 7, 2008, combustible dust explosions at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, GA, killed 14 workers and injured 36 others, many with life-threatening burns. The refinery's packing buildings were also largely destroyed.
"Five years ago, the explosion at the Imperial Sugar Refinery sounded the alarm on this very serious issue," said Barrow. "This legislation makes the workplace safer for folks in my district and across the country and is a common-sense solution to a problem facing our workforce nationwide."
Barrow noted that the House passed the bill in 2008, "and I encourage the current leadership to bring this bill to the floor as soon as possible."
The reintroduced act would:
Streamline OSHA's process for issuing an interim standard and direct OSHA to issue an interim final combustible standard within a year;
Direct that the standard include requirements for housekeeping, engineering controls, workers' training, and a written safety program;
Apply relevant National Fire Protection Standards (NFPA) that call for dust control; and
Direct OSHA to issue a final standard within 18 months and require it to include relevant parts of NFPA standards.
Since the 2008 explosion, there have been 50 combustible dust explosions or fires that have caused 15 deaths and 127 injuries, said the Committee on Education & the Workforce Democrats, citing estimates from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
Pleas to OSHA
CSB member Beth Rosenberg recently noted the CSB recommended in 2006 that OSHA issue a standard to prevent combustible-dust explosions and fires.
After the Imperial explosion, the CSB again called on OSHA to "expedite" the issuance of the standard; and after five workers were killed in Tennessee in 2011, the CSB requested that OSHA "publish a proposed combustible standard for general industry within one year of approval" of the investigation of those incidents, Rosenberg wrote Feb. 7 in the Savannah Morning News.
"Combustible-dust explosions continue to occur with tragic frequency," Rosenberg wrote. "A national standard will save lives. I encourage OSHA to accelerate its rulemaking to prevent any more needless deaths from combustible dust."
Security cameras from the Georgia Port Authority show a time lapse of the explosion at the Imperial Sugar refinery.
The Combustible Dust Explosion and Fire Prevention Act of 2008, H.R. 5522, was presented to OSHA. Edwin G. Foulke Jr. appeared before the Committee on Education and Labor U.S. House of Representatives to discuss OSHA's overall efforts concerning combustible-dust hazards.
"OSHA has recognized these hazards for many years, and has been implementing various initiatives and standards to deal with the problem," said Foulke.
"It is important to point out that OSHA already has tough standards on the books that address combustible-dust hazards such as the standards covering general requirements for housekeeping, emergency action plans, ventilation, hazardous locations, and hazard communication.
"If employers follow the existing requirements established by these standards, employees will be protected from combustible-dust hazards."
H.R. 522: Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act of 2011 was introduced, with its backers stating that "workers cannot be asked to wait any longer for these basic protections."
Combustible dust poses a risk for a variety of industries since the dust can come from many sources, such as coal, metals, textiles, wood, plastics, sugar, and more.
In February 1999, a deadly fire and double explosion at a Massachusetts foundry killed three workers. The cause was traced to combustible dust.
In 1987, OSHA issued a comprehensive grain dust standard after a series of fatal explosions in the 1970s and 80s. According to OSHA's own review in 2003, this standard has cut deaths and injuries from grain dust explosions and fires by 60 percent, the Committee on Education & the Workforce Democrats reported.
Imperial Explosion Investigation
After a 19-month investigation into the Imperial Sugar explosion, the CSB released its final report, which found that the explosions resulted from ongoing releases of sugar from inadequately designed and maintained dust collection equipment, conveyers, and sugar handling equipment.
Investigators also concluded that inadequate housekeeping practices allowed the highly combustible dust to build up throughout the refinery's packing buildings.
CSB Investigation Supervisor John Vorderbrueggen, P.E., who led the investigation, said, "Imperial's management as well as the managers at the Port Wentworth refinery did not take effective actions over many years to control dust explosion hazards—even as smaller fires and explosions continued to occur at their plants and other sugar facilities around the country."
The report said that the company had not conducted evacuation drills for its employees; when the explosions and fires disabled most of the emergency lighting, workers had difficulty escaping.
Workers testified that spilled sugar was knee-deep in places on the floor, and sugar dust had coated equipment and other elevated surfaces, the CSB reported.
CSB's final report on the Imperial explosion stated that the sugar industry has been familiar with dust explosion hazards since at least 1925.
"Dust explosions can be among the deadliest of industrial hazards, particularly inside heavily occupied buildings," said John Bresland, CSB Chairman, when the Imperial report was released. "But these explosions are readily prevented through appropriate equipment design and maintenance and rigorous dust-cleaning programs. I call upon the sugar industry and other industries to be alert to this serious danger."
The CSB recommended to OSHA that the agency develop a comprehensive regulatory standard for combustible dust, based on existing National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) consensus standards, and improve requirements for dust hazard communication to workers.