Each year, people are killed and maimed by explosions of finely powdered wood, metal or chemicals at factories around the country. Safety experts have been studying the threat posed by dust at industrial sites for nearly a decade. But so far tighter regulations haven’t been promulgated by federal agencies. Among the reasons for the delay are a cumbersome rulemaking process and disagreement among the agencies about how to best tackle the problem. Unfortunately, workers continue to die because of the delay.
Combustible dust has been linked to at least six deaths at factories this year. Five of the deaths occurred in separate accidents at a Tennessee plant that makes metal powders for automotive and industrial uses. Another worker was seriously injured by a fireball that investigators blame on an accumulation of iron dust at the same Hoeganaes Corp. plant in Gallatin, Tenn. Bill Kauffman, a retired University of Michigan Professor of Aeronautical Engineering, observed:
The science of explosion control is pretty simple. It’s not rocket science. If you can see your footprint or can write your name on the wall, it’s going to explode.
These industrial sites are regulated separately from grain handling facilities such as the one in Kansas that exploded in October, also killing six. While that tragedy served as a reminder of the dangers for grain industry workers, experts say there are even fewer protections for their 2.5 million counterparts around the country in other industries susceptible to dust explosions. In an inspection prior to the deadly explosions in Tennessee, dust hazards weren’t even checked. Hoeganaes was fined days before the second fatal blast, but not for breaking rules designed to prevent dust explosions — and that’s because there are none. The plant continues to operate and it doesn’t appear the owners have made any safety changes.
The seriousness of this problem is illustrated by figures compiled by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. The scope of the problem is obviously very broad. A 2006 study reported there were at least 281 dust explosions in the U.S. between 1980 and 2005 that killed 119 workers and injured 718. In 2007, it was recommended that the Occupational Health and Safety Administration create workplace rules to control dust and cut down on explosions. The Chemical Safety Board is charged with investigating industrial accidents, but it must rely on regulatory agencies like OSHA to effect change from its findings. The Chemical Safety Board wrote in its 2007 report:
Despite the seriousness of the combustible dust problem in industry, OSHA lacks a comprehensive standard to require employers in general industry to implement the dust explosion prevention and mitigation measures.
OSHA decided instead to initiate a National Emphasis Program that stepped up education and inspections at plants in key industries. While the aim is to reduce dust explosions, inspectors have had to use regulations related to worker training and housekeeping because dust-specific rules are still being developed. According to the Chemical Safety Board, the rules currently being used are insufficient for preventing dust explosions. Numbers from the Chemical Safety Board, even though stricter dust rules were requested, indicate dust explosions have happened just as often. There have been at least 35 explosions with 26 dead and 128 hurt since the beginning of 2008.
Chemical Safety Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said in June that the plant shouldn’t reopen until it was completely redesigned. But the Board doesn’t have the power to close the plant. The Hoeganaes plant wasn’t redesigned, but it did reopen after what the company’s Vice President of Human Resources called “a comprehensive safety review.” The Hoeganaes plant’s last inspection before the explosions had been in 2008, and the inspector did not look for dust hazards or even enter production areas. That’s despite Tennessee’s participation in the National Emphasis Program. According to a Tennessee OSHA official, Hoeganaes wasn’t on an OSHA list of plants considered to be at high risk for dust explosions.
According to Assistant Labor Secretary Jordan Barab, it’s too early to assess the effectiveness of the program. A 2009 OSHA status report found that inspectors had issued more than 4,900 citations at targeted factories in a little under two years. On average, those factories received twice as many citations as facilities not targeted by the program.
Similar rules for different workplaces have paid off. OSHA has had regulations governing combustible dust in grain handling facilities since 1987. A 2003 review of those rules by OSHA found they had reduced deaths from grain dust explosions by 70%. Those rules are very specific. Grain dust is not allowed to accumulate on surfaces to a depth of more than 1/8 inch in defined “priority areas” of the facilities. In the aftermath of the Kansas explosion, experts said the facilities generally are safer than ever, but that only so much can be done to prevent deadly blasts.
The coal mining industry also has rules to prevent dust explosions that require noncombustible rock dust to be sprayed throughout a mine. Not everyone believes OSHA’s process for implementing rules for other industries needs to be so complicated. Professor Kauffman, who advised OSHA on its 1987 grain dust rules, acted as an expert witness on a panel this May that was convened to discuss new combustible dust regulations. He said the grain dust regulations were originally opposed by industry as too costly, but they were so effective that those same industries soon embraced them.
The Chemical Safety Board found that Hoeganaes submitted 23 dust samples from the Gallatin facility to an independent laboratory last year, and 14 were found to be combustible. It was reported that the problem at the plant was obvious to everyone there, even without a laboratory analysis. It’s high time that rules be put in place that will address an obvious safety problem that puts workers at risk for death or serious injury.
Source: Insurance Journal
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