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CSB, Legislators Push for Combustible Dust Standard

During a Feb. 17 briefing, the Chemical Safety Hazard and Investigation Board (CSB) showed evidence of the “widespread and extensive” damage caused by a fatal sugar refinery explosion and stressed that the dangers of combustible dust explosions must be addressed.

The Feb. 7 explosion at the Imperial Sugar Co. in Port Wentworth, Ga., killed nine employees and injured dozens of others. During the CSB briefing, Investigations Manager Stephen Selk displayed two photographs of the explosion’s effects on the facility. The images showed storage silos with blown-off tops, a building with blown-out brick walls and significant fire damage in several areas.

“As you can see, the damage to the facility is widespread and extensive,” Selk said. “In the ensuing weeks, investigators will enter these areas as part of their effort to reconstruct the explosions and fires.”

Officials suspect combustible sugar dust may have ignited to cause the explosion. According to Selk, CSB “has been concerned about dust explosions for at least four years.”

CSB investigated three catastrophic dust explosions in 2003 and subsequently conducted a larger study to determine the extent of industrial dust explosions. The report, which was conducted in 2006, concluded that OSHA had no comprehensive regulation to prevent dust explosions and that its program failed to address the problem. CSB made several recommendations to OSHA, but the agency has only partly acted on them, CSB said.

“But the tragic event that occurred here in Savannah demonstrates that the problem of dust explosions in industry has yet to be solved. It is a problem that requires further attention,” Selk said.

Reps. Lobby for Combustible Dust Standard

In a Feb. 8 letter to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, Reps George Miller, D-Calif., and Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., urged the Labor Department to work to prevent the hazards that lead to industrial worksite explosions.

“Because no comprehensive federal OSHA standard exists to control the risk of dust explosions in general industry, the CSB recommended that OSHA issue a standard,” the letter read. “To this date, more than a year after the CSB report was issued, there has been no indication that OSHA is considering a combustible dust standard.”

Woolsey and Miller acknowledged OSHA’s combustible dust safety and health information bulletin, as well as the Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program, but requested more details on how these activities are being conducted. They called for OSHA to provide the following information by Feb. 25:

  • The number of Certified Safety and Health Officials (CSHOs) who received training in assessing and abating combustible dust hazards;
  • The number of CSHOs with National Fire and Explosion Investigator certification;
  • The number of inspections or other activities so far conducted by OSHA’s Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program, as well as the number of inspections or activities to be conducted in 2008;
  • The number and dates of outreach sessions provided to companies at risk from combustible dust hazards, as well as future plans for such sessions;
  • The number and dates of OSHA Training Institute classes on combustible dust hazards, as well as plans for future classes;
  • The status of any CSB-recommended revisions to the Hazard Communication standard involving combustible dust hazards; and
  • OSHA’s response to CSB’s other combustible dust recommendations.

Miller and Woosley pointed out that CSB reports indicate that a quarter of all combustible dust explosions occurred at food industry facilities, including sugar plants. They also added that the Imperial Sugar facility was inspected only twice in the last decade, and not at all in the last five years. Developing a combustible dust standard, they suggested, could improve safety within these facilities.

“Because of the continuing uncontrolled hazards of combustible dusts, issuing a mandatory combustible dust standard should be a high priority of OSHA,” they wrote.

For more information about the Imperial Sugar blast, read 6 Dead in Massive Sugar Refinery Fire.

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