Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Prevent More Dust Explosions

Two lawmakers have introduced legislation that would compel OSHA to issue measures regulating combustible industrial dusts. The lawmakers hope the legislation will prevent explosions such as the one that took place at the Ga.-based Imperial Sugar refinery in early February that killed 12 workers and critically injured 11 others.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., stated that OSHA already has the authority to issue a standard on combustible dust without Congress intervening, but claim the agency failed to act, despite the well-known dangers of combustible dust.

“The tragedy at Imperial Sugar shows that the threat of dust explosions is very real at industrial work sites across America and needs to be addressed immediately,” Miller said. “It’s unfortunate that it takes the Congress of the United States to tell OSHA how to do its job.”

The National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization, has established voluntary guidelines to control combustible dust hazards and prevent dust explosions. Miller and Barrow concurred that the voluntary standards should be made mandatory, calling the NFPA guidelines “effective, feasible and affordable.”

“Without an OSHA standard, many employers are unaware of the hazards of combustible dusts and control methods, and others have not taken advantage of voluntary standards,” the lawmakers said.

The legislation would force OSHA to issue emergency rules within 90 days that include measures to improve housekeeping, engineering controls, building design, explosion protection and worker training, and to finalize those rules within 18 months.

Miller also announced that he would convene a full committee hearing into the work site risks of dust explosions on Wednesday, March 12.

OSHA Visits Imperial Sugar Refinery

A major 2006 Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board report identified 281 combustible dust incidents between 1980 and 2005 that killed 119 workers, injured 718 others and extensively damaged industrial facilities. CSB also found that OSHA had no comprehensive federals standard that effectively controls the risk of industrial dust explosions and recommended that it issue rules to address the risks of dust explosions.

As of yet, OSHA has not indicated if it was planning to issue rules on combustible dust, but on March 3, it announced that it was visiting the Imperial Sugar Plant refinery. The agency plans to hold a press conference in which it will discuss its activities at the refinery as well as an expanded National Emphasis Program on combustible dust hazards.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which along with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters filed a petition urging OSHA to issue an emergency standard on this type of combustible dust, described the agency's recent effort as a “Hurricane-Katrina-like response.”

“OSHA’s … inaction on this workplace risk follows a pattern of the agency ignoring scientific evidence and its own rule-making guidelines,” the union said.

For more on the petition sent by UCFW and Teamsters to OSHA, read "Unions Petition OSHA for Emergency Dust Standard.".

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