[Updated (July 21, 2014) below]
That’s a common phrase offered by government officials after workers are killed on-the-job. It’s the sentiment shared yesterday by Labor Secretary Tom Perez in response to the January 20 incident that claimed the lives of Keith Everett, 53 and David Ball, 47. The worksite, International Nutrition, manufactures additives for livestock and poultry feed.
Perez’s exact remark was:
“There are many questions yet to be answered about what caused this disaster, but I am confident that the answers provided by federal, state and local officials can offer lessons that will help avoid tragedies like this one in the future.”
News accounts report that OSHA and other investigators suspect that an explosion of combustible dust played some role in the disaster. A dozen or so workers were transported to hospitals, including four listed in critical condition. Workers inside the plant told reporters some of the following:
“I heard the explosion and stuff started falling, so I ducked for cover. It was pitch black in there. All I could see was fire.”
“I just heard a crack pop and big ball of fire, and I just took off running when I heard the first crack.”
I predict it won’t be long before state or local officials confirm or exclude whether combustible dust is a factor or cause of the incident. OSHA, in contrast, is not likely to comment on a cause until its inspection of the scene is completed. The agency has a six-month window to issue citations, if warranted, to the employer. The worker health and safety community will be paying close attention for information about the incident, especially if a dust explosion is the culprit.
As Liz and I have written many times, and the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward has reported, too, it’s a workplace hazard that calls out for regulatory action. In mid-December 2013, the Gazette’s editors bemoaned the Obama Administration’s lack of progress to protect workers from this deadly hazard.
A Center for Public Integrity (CPI) investigation identified more than 450 incidents since 1980 which involved combustible dust. CPI’s Chris Hamby reported that nearly 130 workers were killed and more than 800 injured in these preventable blasts.
Even before the Obama Administration took office, then Senator Obama chastised the G.W. Bush Administration for failing to issue a standard on combustible dust. A press statement he issued in 2008 said:
“We must do everything we can to protect America’s workers and prevent terrible accidents, like the deadly explosion at Imperial Sugar earlier this year, that occur as a result of combustible dust. It’s long past time that OSHA issue a standard to prevent these kinds of accidents, and if the agency will not do so, then Congress must legislate one as soon as possible.”
And because OSHA was not taking action on this matter, one chamber of Congress did act. Under the leadership of Cong. George Miller, a bill requiring OSHA to issue a combustible dust regulation passed the House of Representatives.
A few months later, and shortly after the Obama Administration took office, then Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said:
“It’s time for workers to stop dying in preventable combustible dust explosions. Workplace safety is not a slogan. It’s a priority clearly embodied in our laws.”
But month after month, year after year, the Labor Department has failed to act. Last fall, OSHA indicated it plans to take comments in April 2014 from a select group of small business on a draft version of a regulation. That’s a step the agency previously suggested would take place in April 2011, then December 2011, then October 2013, and November 2013.
If the deaths of David Ball, 47, and Keith Everett, 53, and the injuries to their co-workers, were caused by combustible dust, Labor Secretary Tom Perez will have the information he needs to “avoid tragedies like this one in the future.” If he’s serious, he’ll see to it that OSHA convenes its meeting of small businesses. That would finally get the ball rolling on a regulation to address combustible dust and save workers’ lives. Otherwise, the Secretary’s remarks are just the same shallow words uttered by politicians after every other disaster.
[July 21, 2014 update: OSHA announced citations today against International Nutrition for the January 20, 2014 incident that took the lives of David Ball, 47, and Keith Everett, 53. The agency did not attribute the cause to combustible dust (as I suggested above) but rather to overloading storage bins on the facility's roof with limestone. OSHA's proposed a $120,560 penalty for serious violations, including one willful and one repeat violation. Combustible dust hazards were identified by OSHA's inspectors and the company received citations related to them.]