July 7, 2010 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 2Comment

OSHA and Imperial Sugar reached an agreement this week stemming from the agency’s investigations following a February 2008 dust explosion that ultimately claimed 14 workers’ lives. OSHA originally issued more than 100 willful citations for violations at the company’s Port Wentworth, GA (site of the disaster) and Gramercy, LA plants, and proposed a total of $8.8 millions in civil penalties. At the time, OSHA chief Ed Foulke said:

“I am outraged that this company would show a complete disregard for its employees’ safety by knowingly placing them in an extremely dangerous work environment. What is even worse is that a month after the devastating catastrophe in Port Wentworth that claimed the lives of 13 people, this company had done little to ensure abatement of the combustible dust hazards at its other plant.”

Those were some tough words—maybe the toughest we heard out of the GW Bush OSHA.

In a statement issued by the Labor Department today announcing the settlement of the case, Secretary Hilda Solis was more tempered:

“…Clearly, health and safety must become this company’s top priority. 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.”

Whether tough words or tempered words, the question is whether Imperial Sugar management sounds sincere today about safety, but before long goes back to business as usual. Time will tell.

The negotiated penalty of $6.6 million is not a heavy lift for Imperial Sugar. In fact, it’s actually in the low range of what Imperial Sugar executives projected and disclosed to shareholders earlier this year. Looking at Imperial Sugar’s 2009 annual report, the firm told shareholders it expected an OSHA penalty ranging from $6.0 million to $8.8 million. They also acknowledged that “OSHA penalties are not covered by insurance, and are not deductible for federal income tax purposes.”

Imperial Sugar issued its own statement, with CEO and President John Sheptor noting:

“Imperial Sugar is pleased to resolve the citations. …We are working diligently to become our industry leader in workplace safety.”

That’s a bold promise. He goes on to say:

“We have learned much from our experts and our own studies regarding combustible dust, and we are sharing our knowledge throughout the industry to help others to be aware of the hazards of combustible dust.”

These same sentiments and more were foretold in the firm’s annual report:

Imperial Sugar’s commitment to safety is an integral part of our business philosophy, and we are taking a proactive industry leadership role regarding the potential hazards of sugar dust and food safety. Our intensive program is built around employee training, the mitigation of process risks and constant attention to the fundamentals of safety…

Mr. Sheptor also mentions his company’s support for OSHA’s plans to develop a combustible dust standard. “We have provided,” he says, “detailed input to OSHA on what we have learned regarding the hazards of combustible dust.”

Does anyone else have a wierd feeling that Imperial Sugar—a company responsible for the deaths of 14 workers—is trying to smell like a rose?

See the negotiated settlement between OSHA and Imperial Sugar here.

2 thoughts on “Imperial Sugar agrees to $6 million OSHA penalty, bold promises about safety

  1. Imperial was told by a management member about the hazard and ignored him, their statements about safety are mainly about avoiding having upper management people indicted for manslaughter. You’ll notice that their safety statement talks about employee “training” but there’s no mention of employee involvement in safety. What do you want to bet they’ll buy something like DuPont’s STOP (blame the victim) program.

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