OSHA ramps up for potential combustible dust rule
August 15, 2011 | 10:39 am CDT

An explosion rocked Jasper Furniture’s flat-line finishing plant in Jasper, IN, on Jan. 9, collapsing interior walls and blowing off garage doors at one end of the factory.

Investigators determined that a furniture panel got jammed in a UV finishing line, creating a spark that ignited a fire and triggered an explosion of the dust collection system. The resulting damage, including that caused by water to extinguish the fire, knocked the plant out of operation for two months.

Fortunately the six workers who required medical attention sustained only mild injuries. Such was not the case for 14 workers who died in a Feb. 7, 2008, explosion and fire at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, GA. Dozens of other workers were injured when highly combustible sugar dust in a silo exploded. The force of the explosion collapsed portions of the four-story building.

Congress Prods OSHA to Act
One year after the Imperial Sugar tragedy and the day after six workers were injured in a Feb. 3 coal dust explosion at a power plant in suburban Milwaukee, Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Rep. John Barrow (D-GA) introduced legislation aimed at preventing workplace explosions. “The Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act,” H.R. 849, would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue rules regulating combustible industrial dusts, including wood dust.

“The deadly workplace hazard has been known and understood too long for us to continue to do nothing,” Miller said. (View Video)

OSHA did not even wait for the proposed legislation to get beyond committee review in announcing April 28 that it would initiate a comprehensive rulemaking on combustible dust. OSHA will request data and comments on issues related to combustible dust, including hazard recognition, assessment, communication, defining combustible dust and other issues.

OSHA said it will consider finely ground particles, fibers, chips, chunks and flakes that can cause a fire or explosion in its rulemaking process In addition to wood dust, OSHA will review dusts from metal, plastic, rubber, coal, flour, sugar and paper, among others.

According to the OSHA, more than 130 workers have been killed and more than 780 injured in combustible dust explosions since 1980.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, said, “Over the years, combustible dust explosions have caused many deaths and devastating injuries that could have been prevented. OSHA is reinvigorating the regulatory process to ensure workers receive the protection they need while also ensuring that employers have the tools needed to make their workplaces safer.”

Industry Wary
Currently, U.S. manufacturers are, by and large, required to meet dust guidelines developed by the National Fire Protection Assn. The big question is what new requirements might be mandated by OSHA to prevent dust-related accidents like the ones at Jasper Furniture and Imperial Sugar.

Industry groups, including the Wood Machinery Manufacturers of America, are concerned that any rule promulgated by OSHA prove to be not too costly or burdensome to manufacturers. The WMMA formed the Industrial Dust Task Force to monitor both OSHA and Congress activity on a potential combustible dust standard.

The last time OSHA stuck its nose in wood dust was when it issued a comprehensive rule in 1989 covering more than 100 air contaminants. That rule, which was designed to protect workers from breathing too much hazardous dust, was remanded by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Since the National Toxicology Program added wood dust to its list of known human carcinogens in December 2002, we have assumed it was only a matter of time before OSHA took aim at regulating it again. Now that dust is in OSHA’s spotlight for its ability to combust, we’ll wait and see if it triggers a new round of wood dust emissions regulations. Stay tuned.

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