Dust to dust

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.


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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If it was bad enough for OSHA to give them more than a stern talking to I'm surprised that their insurance people didn't jump ship ages ago. Even though it's essentially legal to kill workers, explosions still cost money.

At very least, it would be nice to, across the board, treat situations where negligence leads to death as negligent homicides, rather than goofy little safety infractions. I suspect that the possibility of doing hard time with the commoners might be more motivational than the risk of fines.

It sounds like at least some of the company's insurers were aware of the situation. Perhaps they thought the premium was worth more than the risk.

"The agency said its investigation uncovered company audits, insurance records and other documents showing Imperial Sugar had been warned about combustible dust hazards in its plants since 2002. Its inspection of the Louisiana plant a month after the Georgia blast found workers wading through sugar dust up to 4 feet deep."

Actually, the fact that powdered (confectioner's) sugar will burn very quickly is one of those facts I keep filed away for the express purpose of surprising people. It nearly always surprises people, so I suspect most people would underestimate the fire risks of sugar dust. But if you're a professional - or if you own a sugar refinery, it's your job to know things like that, and take them into account, and not knowing is negligence.

Is the sugar industry interested in preventing deaths? There is nothing in your post to suggest that. How many deaths, how many "accidents" will it take? Industries would be well served by separating themselves from the worst actors in their field. Unfortunately, I've seen the best vouching or the worst all too often because of uneven power plays by inspecting agents.