February 16, 2008 The Pump Handle 0Comment

The final deceased victim of the February 7 explosion at the Imperial Sugar refinery has been recovered from the scene, and a ninth victim, Mr. Michael Fields, 40, succumbed to his severe injuries earlier today at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Georgia.  U.S. Senators Johnny Iasakson (R-GA) and Saxby Chamblis (R-GA) met today with victims’ families as well as about 200 employees from the plant.  Senator Isakson’s news release said:

“On my visit this morning, I saw the absolute devastation of the tragic explosion at the Imperial Sugar facility.  …We pledged to them our complete support and that of the U.S. government in every way possible on a thorough, precise investigation and then reconstruction of this valuable facility in the greater Chatham County community.”

The Senators’ statements comes on the heels of a letter the two Georgia Senators sent (along with Senators Kennedy (D-MA), Enzi (D-WY) and Murray (D-WA)) to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and William Wright of the Chemical Safety Board (CSB).

The letter notes:

“It is of the utmost importance that we understand the causes of the disaster so future catastrophes can be avoided.  Accordingly, we urge both of you to launch, with appropriate urgency, a complete and thorough investigation of the incident.  We further ask that you keep us apprised as to the progress of this investigation and submit a written report to each of us.”

It seems that the State Fire Commission, Mr. John Oxendine, has already determined the cause: combustible dust. 

“We believe it was sugar dust,” Oxendine said. “The amount of sugar dust could have reached as high as 5 percent and something ignited the dust.  It’s unlikely that ignition source will be determined.  “I don’t think we will ever know,” he said. “It could be 50 different sources.”

The same “cause”—combustible dust—is attributed to deaths in U.S. workplaces of 119 workers and injuries to 718 others between 1980 and 2005.  In November 2006, the CSB made recommendations to OSHA to issue a standard to prevent combustible dust explosions–which kill and maim workers—but OSHA has not done so.  To-date neither Secretary Chao nor Asst. Secretary Foulke have even responded to the CSB’s recommendation. 

So, do the Senators merely want to know the cause, or the cause? 

Doesn’t the cause have something to do with a regulatory system in paralysis? 

What’s the point of having an independent body like the CSB make recommendations if nobody ensures that it leads to change and improvements?

If the Senators are really interested in an answer to the cause question  

  • Who is going to ask senior management at Imperial Sugar why the dust levels were in an explosive concentration?
  • Who is going to press company officials to determine the firm’s air monitoring practices and dust control methods?
  • Who is going to tease out whether these Dixie Crystal jobs were really that great, or was it just that there weren’t other options for workers, and they kept their mouths shut about excessive dust or other hazards.

And it might be wise to have answers to these kind of questions before they start making pronouncements about “reconstruction of this valuable facility in the greater Chatham County community.”

Fresh in my memory today is a conversation I had with a mother who lost her son in a workplace fatality.  She told me what it was like to bury her son and then just a few days later, receive a check in the mail for $5,000 from his employer’s insurance company.  The check was meant to cover funeral expenses, as provided under West Virginia’s workers’ compensation law.  Get this: she buries her only son, and in exchange, she gets $5,000.  Full stop—end of story. 

There are no other death “benefits” or monetary restitution.  I wondered (but didn’t ask) if she thought for an instant about tearing up that check?  Instead, she told me that the $5,000 didn’t cover the funeral expenses and a simple memorial stone at the cemetery; donations made by her son’s co-workers helped pay the difference.  (Georgia’s workers’ compensation law, where the Dixie Crystals plant is located, provides a $7,500 burial allowance.)

Funerals for the deceased victims of the Imperial Sugar disaster are beginning this weekend.  These services will remember the lives of:

Eric Barnes, 56, who had worked at the plant for 5 years in the bagging area.  He is survived by his wife Shirley, son Eric Jr., daughter Erica and 7-year-old granddaughter Nigeria.

Truitt E. Byers, 54, who had worked at the plant for 22 years and is survived by a wife, son and daughter. (more here)

Michael Kelly Fields, 40, who had worked at the plant for 5 months.  He was a newlywed.

Shelathia “Shon” Harvey, 31, who is survived by two children and his wife, a teacher at the Waldo-Pafford Elementary School.

Earl Johnson, 56, who is survived by three sisters, four brothers, a son and a daughter.  His brother Dwight remembers Earl showing off a bag of Dixie Crystals sugar at the local grocery store.  “He was showing me the bags of sugar that he actually packed.  He was proud of the job he did.”

Earl Quarterman, Sr., 55, who had worked at the plant for 10 years and is survived by Helen, son, Earl Jr and daughter Akilah.

Byron Singleton, 26, who had worked at the plant for about two years as a machine operator.  He is survived by his parents, 14 brothers and sisters, and two young sons.

Tony Thomas, 51, who had worked at the plant for 31 years and is survived by a wife and two children.

Michael B. Williams, 51, who was known as “Big Mike” by all of his friends.

Pray for the dead.  Fight like hell for the living (Mother Jones, 1830-1930)


Celeste Monforton, MPH is a research associate in the Dept of Environmental & Occupational Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health, and a volunteer with United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities.

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