Thirteen employees died and 40 others were injured in the massive explosion, which occurred when combustible sugar dust ignited. Three injured workers still remain hospitalized after the blast.
OSHA's inspections of Imperial’s Port Wentworth and Gramercy, La., facilities found large accumulations of combustible sugar dust in workrooms, on electrical motors and on other equipment. According to OSHA, the investigation also determined that officials at the company were well aware of these conditions, but they took no action reasonably directed at reducing the obvious hazards.
"I am outraged that this company would show a complete disregard for its employees' safety by knowingly placing them in an extremely dangerous work environment," said OSHA Administrator Edwin G. Foulke Jr. "What is even worse is that a month after the devastating catastrophe in Port Wentworth that claimed the lives of 13 people, this company had done little to ensure abatement of the combustible dust hazards at its other plant. If OSHA investigators had not inspected and posted an imminent danger notice regarding areas at the second plant, the same thing could have happened again."
OSHA proposed $5,062,000 in penalties for safety violations at the Port Wentworth refinery and $3,715,500 for safety violations found at the Gramercy refinery. The citations include 108 instances of willful violations related to the combustible dust hazard, including the failure to clean up dust and not using appropriate equipment or safeguards where combustible dust is present. OSHA also issued 10 citations for other willful violations, 100 citations for serious violations and four citations for other-than-serious safety and health violations.
Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor refuted these allegations in a company statement.
“[W]e have filed with OSHA a 'notice of contest' of the citations, in which we challenge the allegations of the citations, the characterization of the violations and the penalties proposed,” Sheptor said. “In short, we believe that the facts do not merit the allegations made.”
Sheptor stressed that the company moves forward, it will continue to focus on the safety of employees and contractors, not only at the Port Wentworth plant as it is being rebuilt, but at all facilities.
Miller to OSHA: Issue Emergency Standard
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said OSHA should adopt a new combustible dust rule to help prevent future explosions like the one that occurred in Port Wentworth.
He pointed out that in 2006, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board urged OSHA to adopt combustible dust rules to prevent deaths and injuries caused by combustible dust explosions. But OSHA ignored these recommendations, Miller said.
“It is obvious from these events that existing rules and efforts by OSHA to prevent these explosions are not sufficient,” he said. “The agency should immediately issue an emergency standard to prevent these explosive hazards.”
In April, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosion and Fires Act (H.R. 5522). The bill, introduced by Miller and Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., would require OSHA to issue emergency rules to regulate combustible dust, like sugar dust, that can build up to hazardous levels and explode.