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Sunday, February 16, 2020
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‘Whistleblower’ Changes Story in OSHA Deposition

SBJ Staff

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has announced that it will present its findings on Sept. 24 on the causes of the catastrophic explosion and fire at Imperial Sugar back in February 2008. But in advance of that, the company has released information collected during depositions taken recently in July from a former vice president of the company. It's just one side of a yet unfolding analysis of standard procedures in the industry and oversight procedures by OSHA. 
The blast and fire destroyed the sugar packing buildings, palletizer room, and silos and damaged the bulk train car loading area and parts of the sugar refinery. Fourteen people died in the incident, eight at the scene and six others afterward at a burn unit; in all 36 people were hurt.
CSB staffers will present the results of their investigation, and a public comment period will follow before the board votes on the report.
Imperial Sugar restarted the refinery in mid-June 2009, and has retrained approximately 300 Port Wentworth workers in collaboration with Savannah Technical College and the Georgia Department of Technical and Adult Education.
Imperial Sugar has also launched a corporate-wide, computer-based training program this year that includes employees at its Gramercy, La. and Sugar Land, Texas sites.  The training covers emergency preparedness, heat stress, preventing food contamination, and superior manufacturing practices. The Port Wentworth refinery has also developed a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) food safety module that helps employees identify and eliminate potential food safety hazards in the manufacturing and distribution processes.
Tina Kerby, a member of Imperial's HR department, spearheaded the CBT project in Port Wentworth.
Steven Behm, Imperial Sugar spokesperson has provided the following information to the SBJ: “This most recent testimony is notable in its striking dissimilarity to Graham’s prior statements regarding his warnings (or lack thereof) to management, the condition of the Port Wentworth facility prior to the explosion, and even his own knowledge of the properties of combustible dust.
“In Graham’s testimony before the Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, he stated he had ‘absolutely’ warned Imperial about the ‘explosive’ dangers of the sugar dust at the facility. Graham now admits that he never warned anyone at Imperial about the combustibility and/or explosive character of sugar dust prior to the Feb. 7, 2008, explosion;  not Imperial’s CEO, John Sheptor, not any member of the board of directors, not any member of the safety team, not any member of management and not any employee.
“In fact, Graham testified that he did not believe that the sugar dust he observed at the Port Wentworth facility created an imminent danger. Moreover, Graham admitted that on his tour of the Port Wentworth facility just days before the accident, housekeeping was much improved from his prior visits and that sugar and sugar dust had been removed and cleaned in all areas of the plant he toured.
“In his prior testimony, Graham claimed significant knowledge and experience regarding the combustibility of dust.  As evidence of his knowledge, Graham claimed that, prior to his employment at Imperial, he had researched and studied the National Fire Protection Act (NFPA) standards related to combustible dust. However, in his deposition on April 30, 2009, Graham admitted under oath that he had not read the NFPA standards on dust or electrical classification, OSHA’s National Emphasis Program on combustible dust or the 2006 CSB combustible dust study until after the Feb. 7, 2008, accident. Graham further tried to diminish his prior knowledge and experience regarding combustible dust and its properties by testifying that he was ‘not a dust explosion expert.’ 
“In his first sworn statement to OSHA, Graham claimed that he had made various observations regarding deficiencies in venting, dust collection systems and electrical classification during his plant visits prior to the 2008 accident. By contrast, in his later deposition in the OSHA case, Graham now disclaims all knowledge of such deficiencies prior to the explosion, stating he did not look at these areas or issues during his plant visits prior to the Feb. 7 accident. Additionally, even if Graham had made such observations, he testified that he might not have taken any action because, depending on what the observation was and if there was already a capital expenditure application in process, ‘then I’m not sure what else I could have done.’
“In addition to the inconsistencies in  Graham’s statements, some of his statements lack supporting evidence and are directly contrary to the evidence of record.  Specifically, although Graham claims he was told he was ‘too passionate’ and was counseled by Imperial to mute his criticisms regarding safety, no document and no witness substantiates this claim.  In fact, the issue resulting in Graham’s counseling was an ethics complaint lodged against him complaining that he threatened an employee that he would lose his job unless the employee got production back running within the hour. In response to these allegations, and despite being given a copy of the ethics complaint at the deposition, Graham simply claims ‘There weren’t any ethics complaints,’ and ‘(T)he whole thing is fabricated.’
“Also, although Graham suggests that he was somehow instructed by Imperial to limit his efforts on safety, the documents and e-mails created by Graham and sent to and from him leading up to the Feb. 7 incident tell a very different story – the documents show that in fact Graham was under consistent and frequent direction to improve safety, he was supported in his efforts, and he was reporting positive results.  (Details on special e-mails are available with the online version of this story at
“Finally, in his recent testimony, Graham concedes that in the days and weeks leading up to OSHA’s inspection of Imperial’s Gramercy, La., facility, he was specifically dispatched to ensure the safety of Gramercy, he was never denied resources to do so,  and he was reporting back positive results.
“Imperial will continue to actively communicate with its employees, the communities in which it operates, and other stakeholders through channels that offers it an opportunity to do so in a fair and balanced manner.
"Imperial is defending itself in the court of law,” said Steven Behm, a spokesman for Imperial Sugar. “Similarly, if allegations are brought forward in the court of public opinion, they should be based in fact. Imperial values its relationships with its employees, its partners and the communities in which it operates and believes they should have access to the facts."
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