House Approves Bill Addressing Combustible Dust Hazards

May 1, 2008
By a 247 to 165 vote, the House approved a bill to help protect workers from the possibility of a combustible dust explosion, such as the one that hit the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Ga., on Feb. 7, where 13 workers died and more than 60 others were injured.

Introduced by the House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., the Worker Protection against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act (H.R. 5522) would compel OSHA to issue rules regulating combustible industrial dusts, like sugar dust, that can build up to hazardous levels and explode. According to Democratic legislators, the agency hasn't acted swiftly enough to compel employers to keep their workplaces free of hazardous dust levels.

“By passing this legislation today, Congress is taking the first step toward doing what OSHA should have done years ago,” Miller said.

Specifically, the bill would address industrial dust hazards by:

  • Mandating OSHA to issue interim rules on combustible dust within 90 days that direct employers to employ improved housekeeping methods, engineering controls, worker training and a written combustible dust safety program;
  • Directing OSHA to issue final rules based on voluntary standards devised by the National Fire Protection Association, within eighteen months. The final rules would also include requirements for building design and explosion protection, in addition to provisions included in the interim rules; and
  • Compelling OSHA to revise the Hazard Communication Standard, which warns workers of potential on-the-job hazards, to include combustible dusts.

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) launched a major investigation of the Imperial Sugar explosion and concluded that the explosion was caused by combustible sugar dust. CSB also conducted a major study following a series of fatal dust explosions between 1980 and 2005 and concluded that there were no existing OSHA standard that effectively controls the risk of industrial dust explosions.

However, OSHA already has the authority to issue such regulations. In 1987, the agency issued similar standards for the grain industry in response to various grain dust explosions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. According to CSB, OSHA's own review of the standard revealed it has decreased injuries and fatalities from grain dust explosions by 60 percent.

Republicans Vow to Fight Bill

In a March 12 hearing, OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr. testified that existing standards on ventilation and factory housekeeping can be used to address combustible dust hazards. In addition, he stated the agency implemented a National Emphasis Program (NEP), which involves inspections of facilities that are at risk of combustible dust explosions.

House Republicans and feed and grain industry groups have aggressively rejected the bill using the current economic woes on rising food prices as a defense, claiming that duplicative new standards threaten to drive up the cost of food even further.

“Arbitrary adoption of a single set of standards – no matter how well thought of they might be – also leads to higher compliance costs as some industries adjust operations to meet those standards,” wrote the American Feed Industry Association in a letter sent to the House April 30.

Before the House approved the bill's passage, Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., offered a motion to prevent the new dust standards from being applied to food grain facilities until the Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao said such standards would not increase the cost of domestic food production. Walberg noted that his motion would have maintained the regulatory approach in the underlying bill, limiting its application only to the food grain facilities that are already covered by a safety standard that has proven remarkably effective, showing a 60 percent reduction in explosions since its implementation.

“Re-regulating and duplicating existing federal regulations on American family farmers and small rural businesses could seriously impact commodity prices and drive up the cost of everything from a loaf of bread to a gallon of gasoline,” said Walberg.

House Democrats rejected the Walberg motion, along with an amendment offered by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., which would force Congress to wait until after an investigation of the accident is complete.

The bill will now go to the Senate for approval.

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