Georgia Plant Blast Discloses Dangerous Dust, Federal Inaction

WASHINGTON (PAI) – The fatal Feb. 7 explosion at the Imperial Sugar Co. refinery in Fort Wentworth, Ga., disclosed the hazards of dangerous dust in enclose paces – which can burst into flame with the right spark – and that despite a warning an suggestions for regulation made two years ago, the GOP Bush regime’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has failed to do anything about it.

The warning about the risk came from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent agency that investigates fatal industrial explosions, such as the George blast and the fatal explosion at BP’s Texas City, Texas oil refinery.

And while industry has a responsibility to provide safe working conditions, which Imperial did not at Fort Wentworth, OSHA ignored CSB’s recommendations for regulations that would be designed to cut the hazard from the dangerous dust, witnesses told the Senate Labor Committee on July 29.

The Georgia explosion, which could be seen two miles away, killed 13 workers and sent dozens more to hospitals, CSB Chairman John Breslund testified. Three are still hospitalized by their injuries, seven months later.

Three of the last four big industrial blasts CSB has probed were caused by dust, he added. BP was the exception.

The dust hazard is widespread, affecting food product factories, plastics, auto parts, drug companies, chemical companies and utilities, in addition to Imperial. Food processors and their workers are particularly vulnerable, Breslund said.

And, said the witnesses, all it takes is one spark – say from an electrical short – in a closed room with a lot of industrial dust, to turn the room and the plant into an inferno.

But conditions are made worse when firms deny the problem, and that’s what happened at Imperial Sugar. Internal e-mails, provided by another witness, company vice president for operations Graham B. Graham – a native of Scotland who has been working in the field of industrial accident prevention since his teens – showed a long list of conditions at the plant that Imperial’s top management routinely ignored.

They included “poor cleanliness and contamination control,” poor lighting, rough and unsafe surfaces, high absenteeism and excessive use of contract labor, too many supervisors, not enough focus on safety and waste everywhere.

The conditions at the plant were so bad that Graham – hired last November to oversee Imperial’s plants in Georgia and Louisiana – called Georgia plant managers together and said “one of these days, one of you won’t go home after work – you’ll be in the morgue” after a fatal accident. Two months later, his prediction came true.

The CSB warned OSHA of the dangers of dust in late 2006, and added recommendations for a hazard abatement rule the agency should adopt to push companies to cut down on the danger of a dust fire and blast.

Its recommendations included training OSHA inspectors in recognizing dust hazards, better enforcement of existing rules, better communications of dust hazards to workers, minimum cleanliness standards, redesigning equipment to minimize dust and installing exhaust systems to get it out of plants, regular cleaning and isolating dust-heavy environments from other working environments.

The United Food and Commercial Workers, who represent workers at other sugar and food plants, applauded CSB’s findings and blasted OSHA’s inaction. In a statement distributed at the hearing, UFCW the blast “exposes OSHA’s inability to monitor the actions of big businesses.”

Relying on the agency’s “general duty” clause “and a patchwork of other standards which are limited in scope and do not address such critical considerations design, maintenance, hazard review and explosion protection” will not do, UFCW said. Earlier this year, UFCW and the Teamsters filed a formal petition with the bush Labor Department demanding it force OSHA to follow the chemical board’s recommendations.

Other witnesses told senators OSHA “did not have to reinvent the wheel” since the National Fire Protection Association, a voluntary group, has drafted dust standards for its member states, cities and firms to follow. Not all states adopted NFPA’s rules.

OSHA’s response to the Imperial Sugar blast was to launch its own required investigation of the refinery, and propose its third-highest fine ever, $8.8 million, for 217 violations, including dozens of “willful” violations at both the Lake Wentworth and Louisiana refineries.

But Bush OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke said the first line of responsibility or worker health and safety rests with companies, not OSHA. Though OSHA levied the fine against Imperial under its “general duty” clause requiring companies to keep workplaces safe, “I don’t believe penalties would have changed” with a specific OSHA standard telling companies they had to cut down dangerous dust – and how.

That left even GOP senators dismayed. “We’ve had 281 explosions in 30 years,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). “Everybody ought to know organic dust is explosive”.

Mark Gruenberg is a staff writer for PAI.