Last week, iWatch News (of the Center for Public Integrity) published an in-depth story on combustible dust explosions, which have killed or injured at least 900 workers over the past three decades. Chris Hamby tells the story of Wiley Sherburne, a 42-year-old electrician who was killed by burns from iron dust explosion at the Hoeganaes plant in Tennessee, and the long history of this occupational hazard. Hamby reports that worker-killing dust explosions have been documented since the late 1800s, but still continue. Whether the dust is from metal, nylon, wood, sugar, or another substance, its accumulation sets the stage for a stray spark to explode into a raging fire.

Hamby reports that the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association has been issuing guidance since the 1920s for preventing combustible dust fires, but they’re generally optional and enforced poorly if at all. In 2006, the US Chemical Safety Board released a study on dust hazards and recommended that OSHA issue a standard to protect workers from combustible dust fires. OSHA announced in April of 2009 that it would begin the process of issuing a rule on combustible dust — but earlier this year the agency moved to topic to its “long-term actions” list, citing the complexity of the issue. Hamby writes:

News of OSHA’s decision reached Chris Sherburne at the end of January, around the first anniversary of her husband’s death. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “You put it on the back burner, and that’s where it’s going to stay.”

Her frustration is shared by victims’ families who have seen other health and safety rules similarly stalled, shelved or eviscerated. Whether it’s combustible wood dust at a sawmill, disease-inducing beryllium at an aluminum smelter or lung-wrecking silica at an iron foundry, OSHA allows workers to face conditions that many experts and even the government’s own scientists consider unsafe.

In Port Wentworth, Georgia, where a dust explosion at the Imperial Sugar plant caused the deaths of 14 workers and injuries to 38 more in 2008, Hamby reports on a a new packing facility that’s designed to prevent combustible dust fires. The company has told OSHA it strongly supports a combustible dust rule — but, Hamby notes, “Such about-faces often come after deaths have occurred — and company officials, inspectors or auditors missed warning signs.” Read the whole article here.

In other news:

California Watch (by the Center for Investigative Reporting): Last year, seven California workers died in confined spaces, where they were overcome by fumes or lacked sufficient oxygen.

US News and World Report/Health Day: Survey research finds that approximately 9% of US asthma cases are caused or exacerbated by workplace exposure.

Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era: Glen W. Nolt (age 48) and two of his sons, Kelvin R. Nolt (18) and Cleason S. Nolt (14), of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania were found dead in a manure pit at a Maryland farm. The Nolts apparently drowned in the pit, from which they pumped liquid manure each day.

New York Times: Cancer victims who believe their diseases were caused by exposures at the World Trade Center site following the 9/11 attacks are waiting to find out if they receive treatment and compensation money from a $4.3 billion fund established by Congress.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation: The list of environmental activists killed in India for their work keeps getting longer.