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OSHA Not Issuing Combustible Dust Standard Anytime Soon

In congressional testimony March 12, OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr. stated the agency would consider rulemaking on combustible dust a “strong option,” but only if its investigation of the Feb. 7 Imperial Sugar refinery explosion and an inspection of existing standards reveal that the standards don't adequately mitigate the potential for the hazards associated with combustible dust.

“We have 17 different standards that are applicable to combustible dust,” Foulke told members of the House Education and Labor Committee, noting the existing standards on ventilation and factory housekeeping. “[When] we have conducted enough inspections we will evaluate and review the inspection data to determine if the standards we currently have are adequate to address combustible dust hazards.”

William Wright, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board's (CSB) recently confirmed chairman, argued that a regulatory standard would make employers highly aware of the engineering and safety practices needed to prevent dust explosions and avoid deadly blasts such as the one at Imperial Sugar, which killed 12 workers and critically injured 11 others.

However, the OSHA chief remained adamant that a new standard may not be the solution to prevent more tragedies. He insisted that the agency's multi-pronged approach, which includes enforcement of standards, combined with education for employers and employees, should be effective enough to fight combustible dust hazards.

House Committee Chairman Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., had strong words for Foulke and the agency, stating that OSHA “has been clinging to a past” that has “turned out be fatal.” He, along with Rep. John Barrows, D-Ga., introduced a bill — the Combustible Dust Explosion and Fire Prevention Act (H.R. 5522) — that would push OSHA to issue mandatory rulemaking regulating combustible industrial dusts.

“I see such an incredible lack of urgency on your part, about the role of your agency to protect workers, that it's astounding,” Miller told Foulke. “Congress will continue to step in until OSHA steps up.”

Amy Beasley Spencer, a senior chemical engineer with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), suggested that OSHA's rules were too vague to address the hazards associated with combustible dust. NFPA, a nonprofit and nongovernmental organization, already has established voluntary consensus guidelines to control combustible dust hazards and prevent dust explosions.

Foulke told Occupational Hazards after the hearing that NFPA standards were useful tools and form the basis for many OSHA standards. He added, however, that he was hesitant in adopting them as standards without careful consideration.

“We have concerns about adopting the NFPA voluntary consensus standards as an OSHA combustible dust standard without carefully thinking about their effectiveness, impact and enforceability,” Foulke said.

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