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Monday, January 27, 2020
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Work Force Development

Dust Focus of OSHA Investigation at Sugar Plant

Category: Work Force & Career Development

SBJ Staff

The Imperial Sugar explosion in Port Wentworth in Feb. 2008 was the deadliest industrial dust explosion in the United States since 1980, one of more than 281 dust explosions at U.S. plants since 1980. 
The potential for a dust explosion exists at many of the Savannah area’s manufacturing facilities. Dust is produced by many different types of plants, including food production, metal processing, wood products, chemical manufacturing, rubber and plastics plants and coal-fired power plants.
In the aftermath, a federal investigation has been conducted by The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), bringing new focus on industrial dust prevention and removal procedures, on the need for improved employee training and on the inspection processes of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).
The CSB will make a presentation in Savannah on Sept. 25.
Imperial Sugar’s position to date has been that the company followed existing regulations, and dealt with problems that senior management were made aware of. (See SBJ story, pg 1, Aug 24, 2009 edition.)
CSB findings so far include that OHSA inspectors in general are insufficiently trained, and that the long-established recommendations of the National Fire Safety Board (NSFB) regarding industrial dust are not being used routinely by US manufacturing plants.
Ultimately, whether or not OSHA regulations are changed, a significant issue appears to be enforcement of the federal, state and local regulations that are supposed to provide safety for workers at manufacturing facilities.  And, the lack of penalties for failing to do, as well.
The problems are not just about federal agencies. There appear to be issues regarding the role of state and local fire marshals, including whether they have the authority to deal with problems they encounter. In general, enforcement of OSHA and NSFB requirements have been left to state and local officials, resulting in a "patchwork of adapted and adopted voluntary standards that are challenging to enforce," according to the CSB.
After a series of tragic dust explosions and fires at U.S. plants from 2003 to 2005, the CSB held hearings and found that there were procedures available to control industrial dust, but they were not being adhered to and, “ there is no comprehensive Federal standard requiring adherence to these practices.”  That report was issued in November 2006.  But little changed regarding enforcement or an expansion of penalties for failing to comply.
Industrial dust can accumulate on surfaces and lie around dormant for years. The NFPA has standards for designing systems that reduce the production of dust, and procedures for performing rigorous dust housekeeping procedures, but “the problem is they’re not forced in any regular way,” according to John Bresland, CSB chairman. Many of the regulations exist at the State or even local level, he said; they are just not enforced.
The findings after many of the explosions over the past two decades have also often found that the workers were not informed of the hazards of the dust that was accumulating around them. 
Sometimes accumulating dust occurs in areas that are not immediate visible, such as up in suspended ceilings above plants, as in the deadly fire at West Pharmaceutical in Kinston, NC a few year ago, even though the plant area appeared to be amazingly clean. Dust from the production process and cleaning procedures was present in the suspended ceiling as it traveled out of the building through the dust removal system.
“The knowledge is out there to make sure that no deaths occur due to dust explosions,” states national expert Amy Beasley Spencer of the NFPA.
In April 2009, a comprehensive national regulatory standard was announced by Hilda Solis, the new Secretary of Labor, appointed by the Obama administration.  OSHA has begun the “rule making” for industrial dust, she said.  But will enforcement be sufficient?  And will enforcement responsibility be at the state or federal level?

Georgia State Fire Inspectors
The Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner sets the minimum fire safety standards in the state. The office enforces the fire safety rules and regulations for hotels, apartment buildings, schools, day care centers, personal care homes, churches, hospitals, nursing homes, mercantile occupancies, buildings four or more stories in height and race tracks. The engineering staff reviews and approves construction plans while the fire safety compliance officers examine new and existing structures for compliance with safety fire laws.
Note that this language, directly from Commissioner John Oxendine’s website for the Georgia Dept of Insurance, does not mention industrial or manufacturing plants, though the Georgia code covers such commercial facilities.  
Further, Georgia law requires that counties with over 100,000 persons and municipalities with over 45,000 persons are mandated by law to enforce the state's minimum rules and regulations on such buildings in their area of jurisdiction. Was this done?
State fire officials would have to sign-off of renovations to the Imperial Sugar plant in order for it to reopen after an “incident,” according to the Georgia code.
Immediately after the Port Wentworth fire, Georgia Fire and Insurance commissioner John Oxendine criticized OSHA, and announced that he was implementing emergency safety guidelines statewide at facilities dealing with combustible materials
“Persons who shall violate a provision of this code or shall fail to comply with any of the requirements thereof or who shall erect, install, alter, repair or do work in violation of the approved construction documents or directive of the fire code official, or of a permit or certificate used under provisions of this Code, shall be guilty of violation of Code Section 25-2-37 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated. Each day that a violation continues after due notice has been served shall be deemed a separate offense. Such violations shall be subject to civil penalties as prescribed in Code Section 25-2-37. Any person, firm, or corporation violating this chapter or failing or refusing to comply with any other regulation promulgated under Chapter 2 of Title 25 shall be guilty of a misdemeanor,” the law states.
OSHA officials announced this summer that Imperial Sugar should face fines of $8.7 million for violations at two of its plants, Port Wentworth and in Louisiana, the third-highest in the history of OSHA. The dept. found 120 violations at the Port Imperial Sugar Wentworth plant, calling 61 of them “egregious.”
CEO Phillip Sheptor, responded: "We believe that the facts do not merit the allegations made,” and OSHA said it was preparing for a lengthy appeal and litigation process with the company.
In August, the Obama administration named Dr. David Michaels to lead OSHA, an epidemiologist and research professor at the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. He has conducted numerous studies of the health effects of occupational exposure to toxic chemicals, including asbestos, metals and solvents, and has written extensively on science and regulatory policy.

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