The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation introduced by John Barrow (D-Savannah) and George Miller (D-Calif.) to help prevent combustible dust explosions such as the one at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth on Feb. 7 that killed 13 workers and injured more than 60 others.
Passed by a 247 to 165 vote, the Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act (H.R. 5522) will force the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue rules regulating combustible industrial dusts, like sugar dust, that can build up to hazardous levels and explode. While OSHA already has the authority to issue such a rule without Congress passing new legislation, the agency has failed to act despite the fact that the dangers of combustible dust have been well known for years.
“These rules are long overdue,” said Barrow. “This legislation is an example of what can happen when government, industry, and stakeholders work together to come up with common sense safety regulations that actually protect workers. When it comes to safety, we can’t afford to sit around and wait to act. If we wait, this will happen again. We owe it to the victims of February’s tragedy to prevent that.”
“Even after 13 needless deaths in Georgia, OSHA demonstrates no understanding of the urgency of this problem. That is a shocking failure by the very government agency responsible for keeping workers safe,” said Miller, chairman of the Education and Labor Committee. “The bottom line is that workers need protection, and the agency established by Congress 37 years ago to protect workers has, once again, failed in that duty. Because OSHA has refused to act, Congress must.”
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which has launched an investigation of the Imperial Sugar explosion, has preliminarily concluded that the explosion was caused by combustible sugar dust. In 2006, following a series of fatal combustible dust explosions, the CSB 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 CSB found that OSHA regulations are not designed to deal with the risk of industrial dust explosions.
The Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act would:
• Direct OSHA to issue interim rules on combustible dust within 90 days. The rules would include measures to minimize hazards associated with combustible dust through improved housekeeping, engineering controls, worker training, and a written combustible dust safety program;
• Direct OSHA to issue final rules within 18 months. The rules would be based on effective voluntary standards devised by the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit organization, and, in addition to items required in the interim rules, would include requirements for building design and explosion protection. The interim rules would remain in effect until the final standard is issued; and
• Direct OSHA to revise the Hazard Communication Standard to include combustible dusts.
When dust builds up to dangerous levels in industrial worksites, it can become fuel for fires and explosions.