Imperial Sugar Operations VP Recounts Unsafe Conditions Prior to Blast

July 31, 2008
Graham Harris Graham, vice president of operations for Imperial Sugar Co., testified at a July 29 Senate hearing to describe the unsafe work conditions he witnessed prior to the fatal Feb. 7 explosion in Port Wentworth, Ga.

When Graham joined Imperial Sugar in November 2007, he spent 5 days touring the Port Wentworth refinery. The conditions, he said, were “shocking.”

“It was, without doubt, the darkest and most dangerous manufacturing plant I had ever come to,” he said. “A combustible environment certainly existed.”

In some locations, Graham said, he saw sugar and sugar dust that was ankle, knee or waist deep. Other infractions included puddles of liquid sugar, airborne sugar dust, sugar-encrusted motors and controls, fire protection equipment sheathed in thick dust, rotting fire hoses, fire extinguishers that had not been checked in recent years and a lack of employee fire training. He also found similar problems in the company’s Gramercy, La., plant.

Recommendations

Graham made recommendations to Imperial’s CEO and COO, including firing the plant manager, identifying safety violations, initiating a housekeeping blitz and beginning a site-wide clean up. He also held meetings with management and employees to discuss safety at the refineries.

“I said that I believe that a fatal disaster will befall the refinery if a fundamental change in the way the plant was being operated did not take place,” he said.

While some of his suggestions were followed and the company made some progress, Graham also was criticized for being “too passionate” about the issue of safety.

Graham visited the Port Wentworth refinery about 2 weeks before the fatal explosion. He noted that housekeeping efforts had “certainly improved” but that the conditions were so dire in the first place that he did not believe it was possible to execute a complete turnaround before the February explosion.

Graham remains vice president of operations, but has not participated in senior management team meetings or discussions regarding the explosion, recovery, investigation or reconstruction. Instead, he has been tasked with addressing the conditions at the Gramercy plant, where he says he has overhauled the safety culture, systems, processes and procedures; led a housekeeping blitz; corrected hundreds of safety defects; initiated monthly fire drills; and developed and practiced an emergency evacuation plan.

“I will be taking OSHA’s findings and moving forward to continue fixing the deficiencies so that we can put these people into an environment in which they know is safe and clean,” he said.

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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