WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Wednesday it has resolved litigation with Imperial Sugar Co. stemming from the February 2008 explosion at its Port Wentworth plant and subsequently discovered safety and health violations at the company’s Gramercy, La., facility.
“The 2008 explosion took the lives of 14 people and seriously injured dozens of others. Clearly, health and safety must become this company’s top priority,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. “This agreement requires Imperial Sugar to make extensive changes to its safety practices, and it underscores the importance of proactively addressing workplace safety and health hazards.”
Fourteen workers, including Kelly Fields of Rincon, died as a result of the Feb. 7, 2008, explosion at Port Wentworth refinery. Many others were badly burned.
In the agreement, submitted to Judge Covette Rooney of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, Imperial Sugar will pay $4.05 million in penalties for the 124 violations found at its Port Wentworth plant after the explosion, plus an additional $2 million for the 97 violations found in March 2008 after an inspection of its only other facility, located in Gramercy.
The citations alleged, among other safety and health hazards, that the company failed to properly address combustible dust hazards.
Imperial Sugar CEO and President John Sheptor, in a release, said the company was pleased to resolve the citations.
“Imperial agreed to the terms with OSHA in order to settle these matters expeditiously and amicably,” he said, “and to allow us to better concentrate our resources toward not only enhancing the safety of our own facilities, but also to assist the sugar industry as a whole in addressing workplace hazards.”
As part of the settlement, Imperial Sugar agrees that it has corrected all deficiencies at both of its plants or will correct those deficiencies according to a set schedule. Preventative maintenance and housekeeping programs have been established, and Imperial Sugar will identify and map locations where combustible dust may be present at its plants.
The company also will conduct regular internal safety inspections and employee training, and hire an independent expert at each plant to ensure that there are adequate avenues of communication on worker safety and health issues within the company.
“This settlement is a step in the right direction because it might help prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again,” said U.S. Rep. John Barrow (D-Savannah). “But that’s not enough. We still need the legislation that Education and Labor Chairman George Miller and I got passed in the House in the last Congress and are fighting to pass again this year. I hope our senators use this announcement as a call to action and help us pass that bill as soon as they get back to Washington.”
Furthermore, Imperial Sugar has hired and agrees to continue to employ a full-time certified safety professional for the Georgia plant. The company will retain outside consultants to conduct safety audits for a three-year period and evaluate Imperial’s programs relating to managing combustible dust hazards, such as housekeeping, preventative maintenance and protective equipment for workers. OSHA will approve all safety, health and organizational experts retained by the company.
OSHA will receive current and accurate injury logs whenever requested, and OSHA will be allowed to enter the facility and conduct inspections based on those logs without objection from the company. OSHA will regularly monitor progress and compliance with the agreement and continue to conduct regular inspections of the facility.
Sheptor also said the company has learned a great deal from its own experts and studies about combustible dust, and it is sharing its knowledge.