Sugar Plant Blast Puts Heat on OSHA's Rulemaking

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sometimes a safety issue literally blows up in the face of U.S. regulators. That was the case last month when an explosion and fire at an Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Ga., likely caused by the ignition of sugar dust, killed 13 workers and seriously burned 10 others.

The Feb. 7 accident was the latest of about 300 since 1980 that have killed more than 100 workers and injured 800 more. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the part of the Labor Department responsible for regulating the hazard, ignored a recommendation to create a single dust-control rule, saying it already had 17 regulations telling employers how to avoid a deadly buildup of dust.

An oversight hearing on the subject last week showed how the Democratic-controlled Congress has grown weary of the Bush administration's approach to regulatory policy, which stresses partnerships with industry and voluntary efforts to keep workplaces safe.

"I see such an incredible lack of urgency on the part of your agency to protect workers that it is astounding," Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who heads the House Education and Labor Committee, told OSHA director Edwin G. Foulke Jr.

"We believe the agency has taken strong measures to prevent combustible dust hazards," Foulke said in response. Since the explosion in Georgia, the agency created a Web page to make it easier to find guidance material on combustible dust, he told the committee.

The agency also sent letters alerting 30,000 employers of their responsibilities to prevent dust buildup, and OSHA is inspecting 300 facilities for compliance with rules, Foulke said.

Officials from Imperial Sugar of Sugar Land, Tex., weren't invited to testify at the hearing, chief executive John Sheptor said in an interview. Asked whether a single dust standard is needed, Sheptor said, "Any learning or engineering expertise brought to the combustible dust issue that ends up a rule or a guideline is good for the industry."

Dust explosions occur when fine particles, which might be from coal, sugar, plastics, wood, soap, paper or dried blood, accumulate and ignite from a spark or other heat source. Combustible dust is prevalent in many industries, including chemical, pharmaceutical and recycling operations.

OSHA insists that the 17 rules, which cover housekeeping practices, emergency plans, ventilation and other issues, can prevent the explosions. Foulke said that in doing its site inspections, the agency found "if employers had followed the applicable standards, they would have mitigated these hazards and prevented the explosions."

Committee Democrats pointed out that in 2003, three dust-related blasts took 14 lives. The companies involved paid a total of $170,000 in fines. One facility closed, and the other two had to be rebuilt.

In 2006, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent agency, urged OSHA to issue a single rule to address control of the dust, assessment of the hazard and worker training.

William Wright, interim executive of the board, said at the hearing that since OSHA set a grain-dust standard in 1987, the agency estimates that deaths and injuries from such explosions have dropped 60 percent.

Miller and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), who heads the workplace protections subcommittee, wrote to Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao the day after the sugar refinery explosion, asking her to make issuing a standard a "high priority." So far, the lawmakers have not received an answer.

Chao is being criticized about the sugar plant accident and other issues on a new pro-labor Internet site called ShameOnElaine. The nonprofit American Rights at Work in the District, whose board includes former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, said it is exposing that the department isn't doing its job.

David James, a department spokesman, dismissed the site as a "partisan attack ad" that is the work of Democrats and union bosses.

OSHA's Foulke said in an interview after the hearing that his agency would address any need for a new rule after the sugar refinery investigation is complete and OSHA has finished its review of inspections of other facilities.

Cindy Skrzycki is a regulatory columnist for Bloomberg News. She can be reached

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