In congressional testimony Wednesday, the head of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said snow-like accumulations of industrial dust were reported at the Imperial Sugar Refinery that exploded last month and that simple housekeeping probably would have prevented the deadly blast, the Associated Press reports.
CSB executive William Wright said the agency is still investigating the Feb. 7 accident that killed 12 people at the Port Wentworth, Georgia plant and injured dozens more.
Wright said the explosion fit a pattern of similar incidents in recent years and was preventable.
Preliminary findings show that the company had no program for reducing risks from industrial dust, and employees received little or no training on the hazard, he said. Witnesses have reported that dust accumulated on flat surfaces throughout the plant such as joists and pipes. When triggered, the dust can ignite like gunpowder and probably served as fuel in a series of explosions that destroyed parts of the plant.
"These tragedies are preventable," Wright said, citing existing voluntary standards from the National Fire Protection Association. "Without accumulated fuel, the most catastrophic type of dust explosion cannot and will not occur."
The CSB investigates industrial accidents for the federal government and makes safety recommendations to industry groups and federal regulators.
In 2006, after conducting a study that identified 281 industrial dust fires and explosions over a 25-year period, the CSB recommended that OSHA enact regulations to prevent future accidents. But the agency has not acted on those recommendations, even though it implemented similar standards for the grain industry after a series of explosions in the 1980s.
House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., have proposed legislation that would force OSHA to issue new regulations.
Edwin G. Foulke Jr., head of OSHA, testified at Wednesday’s hearing on Capitol Hill to discuss the agency’s efforts to protect workers from combustible dust hazards.
"OSHA is intensifying its ongoing enforcement, education and outreach programs to ensure that employers and workers are doing everything they are supposed to be doing to protect against combustible dust,” Foulke told the House Education and Labor Committee.
Foulke also noted several initiatives that OSHA has undertaken to improve its enforcement and outreach, including issuing a new OSHA fact sheet titledHazard Alert: Combustible Dust Explosions, which provides an overview of combustible dust hazards and offers suggestions for eliminating these hazards.
Foulke has ordered OSHA to refine and expand the combustible dust National Emphasis Program that was announced in October 2007 to focus on facilities most likely to experience catastrophic dust explosions. He also stated that the agency's Harwood training grant program will include combustible dust as a training topic for grant solicitations for fiscal year 2009.
Foulke added that on March 10 OSHA provided a two-hour refresher training on the subject to 700 compliance officers, and he also has ordered his staff to prepare guidance for stakeholders to improve hazard communication related to combustible dust.