An OSHA standard on combustible dust, House Democrats said, would help protect workers by requiring industries to better train employees about dust risks and more thoroughly inspect, clean and ventilate their plants.
The bill, H.R. 5522, The Combustible Dust Explosion and Fire Prevention Act of 2008, was introduced by Committee Chairman Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. John Barrows, D-Ga., in response to the Feb. 7 explosion that ripped through the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Ga. The blast killed 13 workers and injured more than 60 others.
In addition, a 2006 Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) report investigating combustible dust incidents prompted Congress to take immediate legislative action, as CSB found that no OSHA standard effectively controls the risk of industrial dust explosions.
CSB recommended that OSHA should issue rules to address the risks of dust explosions. But 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. (For more information on this hearing, read OSHA Not Issuing Combustible Dust Standard Anytime Soon.)
"The time for OSHA action is long overdue," Miller said during the hearing. "Once again, the [Bush] administration has failed to act, so we must."
Republicans Against Bill
Despite the bill's passage, House Republicans hinted that that they would oppose the measure if it goes to the floor for final passage. The bill still must gain House and Senate approval.
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said that while he understands the urgent call to respond to combustible dust tragedies, he questioned whether “legislating based on newspaper headlines” makes sound policy. He said the bill “proposes a highly proscriptive regulatory mandate in an excruciatingly compressed time frame.”
South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson offered an amendment to the bill, calling for an approach that includes stakeholder input and expertise for any regulatory action and that allows current safety initiatives such as the NEP to work.
“The underlying bill fails to provide the most effective means of safety,” Wilson said. He proposed that Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, after reviewing the information gathered from the OSHA investigation of the Imperial Sugar plant explosion and NEP data on combustible dust, should determine whether a combustible dust standard is necessary.
A voice vote defeated Wilson's proposed amendment. Miller said he disagreed with idea that the committee was rushing in passing the bill without the understanding the problem. He emphasized that additional time would work against employees’ benefit.
“If we comply with the substitute, it may be another two years before the combustible dust NEP [is complete],” he said. “I would ask members of committee to understand one important fact: Since the Nov. 2006 CSB report, an additional 67 dust fires and explosions have taken place. We can't afford to wait, and the workers in those facilities cannot afford to wait.”
Bill Amendment Addresses Time Concerns
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., introduced an amendment addressing some of the concerns raised by the bill's opposition, such as the timing of the final standard. She said the bill was modified to move some of the provisions for the interim final standard – building design explosion protection, management of change – over to the final standard. Her amendment was approved by a committee voice vote.
In addition, she proposed moving the reference to OSHA incorporating rules based on current National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) dust explosion standards from the interim final standard to the final standard, due to the “difficulty involving translating seven NFPA standards into one OSHA standard.” The amendment also allows OSHA the flexibility to adopt appropriate provisions for the NFPA standards into the final standard.
Finally, the amendment gives OSHA the discretion to find an appropriate definition for “combustible dust” under the Hazard Communication standard, with the condition that the term be listed under the standard’s “physical hazard” subsection.