Should OSHA Adopt a Combustible Dust Standard?

July 31, 2008
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety held a July 29 hearing to discuss OSHA’s role in protecting workers from combustible dust explosions and whether a new standard is needed to best mitigate this hazard.

The hearing was held just days after OSHA proposed an $8.77 million fine against Imperial Sugar Co. for violations related to a Feb. 7 explosion at the company’s refinery in Port Wentworth, Ga. This blast, which was caused when combustible sugar dust ignited, killed 13 workers and injured more than 40 others.

In her opening statement, Subcommittee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., said OSHA’s recent proposed fines for Imperial Sugar are “too late” for the 13 workers who died and those injured by the explosion.

“Without a specific, dust-related standard, OSHA’s ability to levy specific citations or penalties is limited,” she added.

While OSHA has not taken steps toward a combustible dust standard, the agency did issue a National Emphasis Program (NEP) for combustible dust in 2007 and reissued this program in 2008.

Passing the Buck

During his testimony, OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr. said that after inspecting Imperial Sugar’s Gramercy, La., and Port Wentworth, Ga., facilities, OSHA concluded that the company’s negligence led to the explosion.

“Imperial Sugar is a tragic example of what happens when employers fail to uphold their obligations to protect employees as required by the [OSH Act],” he said.

According to Foulke, OSHA determined that Imperial Sugar’s senior management was aware of the combustible dust hazards at both facilities; management did not take the necessary steps to abate those hazards; and management’s failure to control or eliminate those hazards led to the Feb. 7 explosion.

He also emphasized that the OSH Act requires employers to maintain a safe work place. “That is their responsibility,” Foulke said. “Some people like to pass the buck, to be quite frank. They want to try to shift the blame away from them and put it on someone else.”

John S. Bresland, U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) chairman and CEO, described combustible dust as an “insidious workplace hazard” during the hearing. While he agreed that industry has a basic responsibility for safety, he said this does not eliminate the need for a standard.

“For industry to run safely, you do need some guidance in the way of regulations,” he pointed out.

CSB completed a study on combustible dust in 2006 and made several safety recommendations to OSHA, including calling for a regulatory standard for general industry for combustible dust. Since these recommendations, however, 82 additional dust explosions have occurred.

“A company that experiences a major dust explosion can expect to receive a fine from OSHA, as Imperial has, but absent a standard, thousands of other companies that may be at risk do not benefit from clear instructions about what kinds of dust are the most hazardous and what training and controls should be put in place,” Bresland said.

Foulke: OSHA Already Addresses Combustible Dust

Foulke pointed out that OSHA already has effective standards in place that address combustible dust standards, including standards for general requirements for the accumulation of combustible dust, electrical safety in hazardous locations, ventilation and hazard communication.

He added that OSHA continues to inspect facilities with a high probability of a combustible dust explosion through the NEP. OSHA also intends to inspect all sugar refineries by the end of the calendar year, he added.

In addition, Foulke said that OSHA has taken other steps to address combustible dust hazards, including education and proposing to amend existing standards to clarify employers’ responsibilities concerning combustible dust. Other actions taken by OSHA include:

  • Distributing the 2005 safety and health information bulletin, Combustible Dust in Industry: Preventing and Mitigating the Effects of Fire and Explosions, to 30,000 workplaces;
  • Releasing a hazard alert to inform employers and employees how to identify and abate combustible dust;
  • Developing a comprehensive Web page to educate stakeholders on the issue;
  • Releasing a poster to visually communicate combustible dust hazard controls;
  • Developing a guidance on hazcom requirements;
  • Modifying language in the housekeeping standards to clarify employer requirements to prevent the accumulation of combustible dust; and
  • Continuing combustible dust training for compliance officers.

Murray, however, pointed out that some of the existing OSHA standards Foulke mentioned do not specifically mention dust. She asked whether a single, comprehensive standard could be more effective in helping employers to understand combustible dust hazards.

“We have not ruled out looking at doing a standard,” Foulke said. He added, however, that OSHA currently is focused on the NEP to gather information about various companies that have the potential for combustible dust hazards.

Grain Standard Comparisons

Several speakers at the hearing, including Murray and Bresland, referenced OSHA’s successful 1987 Grain Handling Facilities Standard as an indication that a combustible dust standard could yield similarly positive results.

While Foulke did not deny that the grain standard has been successful, he pointed out that several factors should prevent a direct comparison between that standard and a possible combustible dust standard.

First, Foulke said, the grain standard addresses engulfments as well as explosions, and engulfments may have accounted for a portion of the fatality reductions that occurred once the standard in place. In addition, he said, it took 8 years to enact the standard, and a steady decline in the number of explosions and fatalities already was underway during that time.

Finally, while the 1987 standard deals with only one element – grain – a combustible dust standard would include many different types of dusts and substances to create a more complicated standard, he said.

But Amy Beasley Spencer, senior chemical engineer for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), pointed out during her testimony that NFPA has addressed multiple types of dusts in its documents.

The NFPA Option

Spencer explained that OSHA need not “reinvent the wheel” when developing a combustible dust standard and can instead turn to NFPA for guidance.

“NFPA believes OSHA must develop regulations to address and mitigate dust hazards by incorporating by reference the relevant NFPA codes and standards,” she said.

She pointed to NFPA’s principal dust document NFPA 654, Standard for the Prevention of
Fires and Explosions from the Manufacturing, Processing and Handling of Combustible Particulate Solids, which she says covers the fundamentals of protecting dust hazard processes. She added that NFPA also maintains commodity-specific dust documents covering coal, sulfur, combustible metals, wood dust facilities and agricultural dust.

“Let’s not ignore the combustible dust problem by assuming ‘OSHA has it covered already’ or attempt to reinvent the wheel by having OSHA write new regulations when the information already exists in NFPA documents,” Spencer said.

According to Bresland, an OSHA standard can help prevent deadly blasts like the February Imperial Sugar tragedy.

“A new standard combined with enforcement and education will save workers’ lives,” he said.

For more information, read OSHA Fines Imperial Sugar $8.77 Million and OSHA Not Issuing Combustible Dust Standard Anytime Soon.

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