Shawn Boone did not die instantly five years ago at the Hayes Lemmerz plant in Huntington, Ind. He was lying on the floor, his body smoldering, as the aluminum dust burned through his flesh and then his muscles. With every breath he took, more of his internal organs burned. Still conscious and blinded from the initial blast, he begged for help as they loaded him into the ambulance.
Shawn and two co-workers had gone in to light a chip melt furnace at their plant, where aluminum automotive wheels are made. They stepped away from the furnace and waited a few minutes to make sure everything was okay and then went back to retrieve their tools. Shawn’s back was to the furnace when the first explosion knocked him down. Immediately after he got up a second, more intense blast knocked him down again. The copper piping in the room melted as his heart and lungs burned.
This was the story Shawn’s sister, Tammy Miser, told Congress last month when she testified at a House Education and Labor Committee hearing. Lawmakers on the committee are trying to force the Bush-controlled Occupational Safety and Health Administration to do its job and draft rules that will force industry to curb combustible dust hazards. The Bush administration is refusing to adopt such measures, now also beginning to gain some support among members of the Senate’s Workplace Safety Subcommittee.
The deadly hazards of combustible dust came to the fore again in February in the wake of a fatal sugar refinery explosion in Georgia. OSHA says it lacks sufficient data to act, even after that explosion, because the company has not yet completed its investigation.
The People’s Weekly World received copies of Miser’s testimony from PAI, the union news service. It read, in part:
“Hayes Lemmerz never bothered to call any of my family members to let them know that there was an explosion, or that Shawn was injured. The only call we received was from a friend of my husband, who told the family Shawn was being taken to a burn unit in Fort Wayne — five hours away. When we arrived we were told that Shawn was being kept alive but only so we could see him alive.
“The doctors had refused to treat Shawn, saying that even if they removed his limbs, his internal organs were burned beyond repair. This was apparent from the black sludge they were pumping from his body.”
Miser then described the heart-wrenching decision to disconnect her brother from life support and having to watch him die from “an accident that could have been prevented.”
She said her brother’s last words, as he begged to be taken off life support, were, “I’m in a world of hurt.”
On Feb. 7, after another combustible dust explosion, workers at the Imperial Sugar plant in Savannah, Ga., and their families entered that same “world of hurt.” That tragedy showed that this particular hazard is faced by workers in industries other than just aluminum and steel.
According to the United Food and Commercial Workers union, 25 percent of combustible dust-caused fires are in food processing plants, including sugar refineries, distilleries, and cocoa, chocolate, coffee and flour plants.
In spite of the evidence, OSHA administrator Edwin G. Foulke refused at the congressional hearing to promise lawmakers that his agency would act against dust hazards in the nation’s factories. He said more investigations are needed and that, in the meantime, companies are being asked to voluntarily reduce combustible dust levels.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) called OSHA’s failure to act ridiculous and vowed to push for legislation forcing the agency to act.
“Everyone already knows what caused the explosion at the Imperial Sugar plant,” Miser said, “But it would have been nice to prevent this from happening in the first place. It is beyond negligent for OSHA to expect a company that knows about these hazards and lets them exist to voluntarily fix the problem. OSHA must make it a requirement.”
firstname.lastname@example.org PAI contributed to this article.