Another big test for Chemical Safety Board

by Ken Ward, Jr.,  cross-posted from Sustained Outrage: a Gazette Watchdog Blog

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is scheduled to release the findings of its investigation into the terrible explosion that killed 14 workers at a Georgia sugar refinery in February 2008.

It’s another big test for the CSB,  which has been under fire recently.  Organized labor harshly criticized the board for backing off a strong recommendation on the need for OSHA and EPA to write new rules to prevent accidents involving highly reactive chemicals.  The board refused to support its own staff’s call for a safety bulletin and recommendations urging more controls on how workers handle the purging of gas lines.

When the Imperial Sugar report comes out, labor groups and safety advocates want to see the CSB repeat — in very tough terms — its previous call for OSHA to implement  a “comprehensive regulatory standard” aimed at preventing dust explosions across all industries nationwide.

Robyn Robbins, assistant director of occupational safety and health for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, told me this week:

We’d like to see the CSB issue clear, strong, substantive recommendations that give guidance to other facilities on how to prevent a disaster like this from ever happening again, and also reiterate their call for an OSHA standard on combustible dust.

 bio_bresland_112wx156h.jpgWill the CSB do that? I asked board Chairman John Besland if safety advocates would be disappointed:

No, they won’t. They’re going to be very pleased.

The issue of combustible dust is still a prime issue for the Chemical Safety Board.

But Bresland also went to great lengths to explain that OSHA is under new management, and that the Obama administration has indicated it plans to do a rulemaking on the combustible dust issue.

In that case, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has actually announced that OSHA would move forward with such a rulemaking, saying that “moving forward on a combustible dust standard that is long overdue.” But, the OSHA regulatory agenda called for a preliminary notice seeking comments on the direction such a rule should take to be published in August. OSHA has already missed that self-imposed deadline.

And in the recent case of its report on the T2 Laboratories explosion, Bresland told me the CSB decided not to repeat its recommendation for new rules on reactive chemicals based mostly on a meeting in which acting OSHA chief Jordan Barab indicated his agency was looking at doing something on the issue:

There was some indication from Jordan that they would be doing something on reactive chemicals.  I’m not sure what that is exactly, and I’m not sure they know exactly.

If that was enough for the CSB not to specifically repeat its reactive chemicals recommendation, it seems like a formal announcement by the Secretary of Labor would surely be enough for the board not to repeat its combustible dust recommendation.

And let’s not forget what a serious workplace safety issue combustible dust is. Here in West Virginia, and around the nation’s coalfields, we know all about coal dust’s dangers.  But all sorts of other fine dust — from flour and sugar to metals, plastics and pharmaceuticals — can be highly explosive. The CSB has called combustible dust  an “insidious workplace hazard” when it accumulates on surfaces, especially elevated surfaces.

Since the CSB got up and running in 1998, three of the four deadliest accidents they have investigated were determined to be combustible dust explosions.The other two were a 2003 explosion that killed six at the West PHarmaceutical Services plant in Kinston, N.C.,and a 2003 explosion and fire that killed seven at the CTA Acoustics plant in Corbin, Ky.

In a detailed report released in 2006, the CSB found that, over a 25-year period, nearly 200 dust fires and explosions killed 100 workers and injured 600 others.

At Imperial Sugar, CSB investigators found that a catastrophic explosion was caused by massive accumulations of combustible sugar dust on surfaces throughout the packaging plant. These ranged in depth from an inch or two up to several feet — far more than the National Fire Protection Association’s recommended limit of 1/32 of an inch. According to employees, sugar accumulated on the floor in the powder mills to a “mid-leg” height. CSB investigators were told that airborne sugar in this room made it difficult for workers to see each other.

Last year, the House of Representatives passed a bill to force OSHA to regulate combustible dust.  The legislation, authored by House Labor Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., would required OSHA to issue an interim standard within 90 days — something that labor leaders would like to see the Obama administration do.

tammy-miser.jpgDuring a hearing held by Miller’s committee, Tammy Miser testified about the agonizing death of her brother, Shawn Boone, in an aluminum dust explosion at Hayes Lemmerz in Huntington, Indiana, on Oct. 28, 2003:

Shawn did not die instantly. He laid on floor smoldering while the aluminum dust continued to burn through his flesh and muscle tissue. The breaths that he took burned his internal organs and the blast took his eyesight. Shawn was still conscious and asking for help when the ambulance took him … The two things I remember most are Shawn’s last words, “I’m in a world of hurt.”  And his last breath.

Tammy helped to form the group United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities,  which works for safer workplaces and for the rights of families left behind. On its Web site, the Savannah Morning News’ collection of Imperial Sugar coverage includes a section that remembers the victims.

We’ll see if the CSB remembers its own recommendations, and the dangers of explosive dust that are outlined in the board’s video. [Caution, this video begins with audio from a 911 call about the Imperial Sugar plant explosion, and is harsh.]