Senate Provides Shocking Testimony on Dust Explosions
The United States Senate, Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety concluded a lengthy hearing, " Dangerous Dust: Is OSHA Doing Enough to Protect Workers?" on Capital Hill this morning with testimony from governmental, industry and safety professionals.
Imperial Sugar Refinery Explosion
It's been over five months since the tragic Imperial Sugar Refinery dust explosion in Port Wentworth, Georgia that claimed 13 lives and injured dozens more. The accident garnered national media attention and CBS 60 Minutes aired a segment concerning combustible dust hazards in June.
As a result of the dust explosion Congressman George Miller (D-CA), Chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor in the House of Representatives, drafted the Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosion and Fires Act, which passed by the House in April. Next is a vote in the Senate and then Presidents signature, which the Bush Administration has already stated that it would veto.
The legislation would require the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue workplace safety rules regulating combustible dusts. Currently OSHA does not have a comprehensive workplace combustible dust standard, only a dust standard for the grain and feed industry.
In Contrast, Edwin G. Foulke, Jr., Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has emphatically countered that OSHA already has sufficient regulations in place concerning combustible dust and congressional legislation is unwarranted.
The Senate hearing provided legislators with additional information on the hazards of combustible dust that is inherently prevalent in the manufacturing workplace. During the manufacturing process combustible dust is generated from combustible particulate solids in the metal, food, agricultural, chemical, wood, paper, and electrical utility (coal) industries.
Combustible particulate solids include chunks, chips, fibers, fines, flakes, which also includes combustible dust. During the handling and processing of the larger combustible solids, the size of the initial product is reduced which exponentially increases its surface area and propensity to burn rapidly in a deflagration with rapid rise in temperature and pressure.
The shocking and revealing aspect of the Senate hearing was testimony from an industry whistle-blower, Mr. Graham H. Graham, Vice President for Operations, Imperial Sugar Company who amazingly is still employed by company. Mr. Graham was hired by Imperial Sugar in November 2007, three months prior to the Port Wentworth, Georgia sugar dust explosion.
In December 2007, Mr. Graham conducted an inspection of the facility and noticed hundreds of safety deficiencies and wrote an urgent report to corporate management, stating that a fatal disaster would ensue if the sugar dust that was ankle, knee, and waist high was not cleaned up.
Sands in the Hour Glass
The housekeeping problem at the plant was so severe that the plant manager was immediately terminated. Senior management and CEO John Sheptor responded that Graham was extremely too passionate about his new job and to tone it down a bit.
As a follow-up, Mr. Graham returned to the sugar plant two weeks prior to the catastrophic February, 7. 2008 explosion and held a meeting with the new plant manager in addition to 18 members of the upper plant management staff. He noticed progress was being made but not enough especially since personnel had been normalized over decades of times to the prior unsafe working conditions. Unbeknownst to everyone at the meeting, time was rapidly running out as the last sands in the hour glass parlayed into impending doom for all.
Imperial Sugar Refinery Pictures 2006(prior to explosion)
Combustible Dust Policy Institute