The accident at Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia, was the latest of about 300 combustible dust incidents 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. In March, an oversight hearing on the subject showed how the 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. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), who heads the House Education and Labor Committee, told OSHA director Edwin G. Foulke Jr.:
I see such an incredible lack of urgency on the part of your agency to protect workers that it is astounding. We believe the agency has taken strong measures to prevent combustible dust hazards.
Since the explosion in Georgia, the agency has created a Web page to make it easier to find guidance material on combustible dust. The agency also sent letters alerting 30,000 employers of their responsibilities to prevent dust buildup. According to Director Foulke, OSHA is inspecting 300 facilities for compliance with rules. 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.” Members of the committee 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%. Miller and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), 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 my friend, John Edwards, said it is exposing that the department isn’t doing its job.
Source: Washington Post
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