Rep. John Barrow, a Savannah, Ga., Democrat, has introduced The Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act (H.R. 522). The bill would force OSHA to set requirements regulating combustible industrial dusts.

In February 2008 the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Ga (in Barrow’s congressional district), exploded, killing 13 workers and severely injuring many more. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has concluded that the explosion was caused by combustible sugar dust.

Barrow’s bill is co-sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the senior Democrat of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), the senior Democrat on the Workforce Protections Subcommittee.

To address dust hazards, the bill:
  • Streamlines OSHA’s process for issuing an interim standard and directs OSHA to issue an interim final Combustible Dust standard within a year. The standard would include measures to minimize hazards associated with combustible dust through improved housekeeping, engineering controls, worker training and a written combustible dust safety program, and apply the relevant National Fire Protection Standards that call for dust control.
  • Directs OSHA to issue a final standard within 18 months. OSHA would be required to include relevant parts of National Fire Protection Association standards. In addition to items required in the interim standard, the final standard would include requirements for hazard assessment, building design and explosion protection.
  • The interim standard would remain in effect until the final standard is issued. OSHA would be required to fulfill all administrative rulemaking requirements including full public hearings, feasibility analysis and small business review as part of developing a final standard.
According to a House Democratic press release, in the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. experienced a series of grain dust explosions that caused a number of deaths. OSHA responded in 1987 by issuing a comprehensive grain dust standard. This standard requires preventive maintenance, worker training, safe operating procedures, emergency planning, and formal dust cleaning programs in grain elevators.

In 2006, following a series of fatal combustible dust explosions, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board conducted a major study of combustible dust hazards.It identified 281 combustible dust incidents between 1980 and 2005 that killed 119 workers, injured 718 others, and extensively damaged industrial facilities. The tragedy at Imperial Sugar shows that the threat of dust explosions is very real at industrial worksites across America and needs to be addressed immediately.

In the three years since the February 7, 2008 explosion at Imperial Sugar, there have been 24 combustible dust explosions or fires, causing four deaths and 65 injuries.

When dust builds up to dangerous levels in industrial worksites, it can become fuel for fires and explosions. Combustible dust can come from many sources, such as sugar, flour, feed, plastics, wood, rubber, furniture, textiles, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, dyes, coal, and metals, and therefore poses a risk across a number of different industries throughout the United States.