July 28, 2008 The Pump Handle 0Comment

by revere, cross-posted at Effect Measure

As we noted two days ago in a post about how the produce industry is now interested in tracking regulations they previously opposed after being whacked with billions of dollars in losses because of a protracted Salmonella outbreak whose source was presumably produce but couldn’t be easily traced, the sugar industry is now also interested in OSHA regulations for combustible dusts. All it took was the deaths of 13 workers at the Imperial Sugar Refinery in Savannah, Georgia. That and the thrid largest fine in OSHA history, $8.7 million. The facts suggest that the $8.7 million was a lot more important than the 13 workers’ lives:

At a news conference in Savannah, Edwin G. Foulke Jr., the OSHA chief, said, “The investigation concluded that this catastrophic incident could have been prevented if Imperial Sugar had complied with existing OSHA safety and health standards.”The company’s senior management was fully aware of the combustible dust hazards, Mr. Foulke said, and did not take any appropriate action to eliminate them.

The fire, which burned for a week, started when sugar dust, which is highly combustible, was ignited in the plant by a large bucket that broke loose in a storage silo and struck a metal siding, causing a spark, according to OSHA’s investigation. Even when plants are regularly cleaned, dust can build up on ledges, pipes and other hard-to-reach places. The fire renewed calls for OSHA to issue regulations specifically designed to prevent combustible dust explosions, which can occur in many industries.

In addition to the fatalities, the fire injured 40 people, three of whom are still in a hospital burn unit, and shocked the small community of Port Wentworth, Ga., where it seemed that almost every family had some connection to the 91-year-old sugar plant. Imperial Sugar won praise when it promised to rebuild the plant and continue to pay workers. (New York Times, h/t Jordan Barab, Confined Space)


Everyone knows that sugar burns. Dust explosions occur when combustible materials are finely divided (as in a dust), providing tremendous surface area which can combine with atmospheric oxygen. A small initial explosion or ignition causes a shock wave and convection currents which then mobilize more dust and a chain reaction ensues. Much of the catastrophic damage is often done by these secondary explosions. Here is a cartoon from OSHA illustrating what happens:


Dust explosions are hardly unknown.

  • January 2003, devastating fires and explosions destroyed a North Carolina pharmaceutical plant that manufactured rubber drug-delivery components. Six employees were killed and 38 people, including two firefighters, were injured. Cause: an accumulation of a combustible polyethylene dust above the suspended ceilings. 
  • February 2003, a Kentucky acoustics insulation manufacturing plant, 7 killed, 37 injured. A small fire extending from an unattended oven ignited a dust cloud created by nearby line cleaning, followed by a deadly cascade of dust explosions throughout the plant. 


  • Late 1970s a series of devastating grain dust explosions in grain elevators left 59 people dead and 49 injured, leading to promulgation of the Grain Handling Facilities standard (29 CFR 1910.272) and subsequent standards and industry actions. (cases cited by OSHA)


Imperial Sugar didn’t know? Well maybe the deaths of 13 employees was a wake-up call. And maybe not:

But Mr. Foulke said that even after the explosion, company officials had not acted to alleviate similar conditions at its plant in Gramercy, La., despite a warning from OSHA. An inspection of that plant five weeks after the Georgia fire found sugar dust four feet thick in some spots, he said, prompting OSHA to issue an emergency order closing the plant, an action the agency characterized in a news release as “extremely rare.” (NYT)

Rare indeed. This must have been bad. Really bad. And it was:

The proposed penalties include more than $5 million for violations at the Port Wentworth plant, with 120 violations, and $3.7 million at the Gramercy plant, with 91. The violations included failure to clean up dust, the use of spark-producing electrical equipment, and faulty ventilation and dust collection systems.[snip]

Eric Frumin, the health and safety coordinator for the labor union federation Change to Win, said the fines could have been much higher if OSHA had regulations for combustible dust. The agency found 118 “egregious” violations, a category in which the agency counts each instance in which a violation occurs.


Hefty fines are a start. How about some criminal indictments. Or is that reserved for kids with a half ounce of pot in their pocket and no victims?

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