An OSHA-mandated combustible dust standard in likely a year or two away, but that doesn’t mean the federal safety agency isn’t already applying increased pressure on manufacturers to clean up their plants.

As I witnessed firsthand yesterday at OSHA’s third in a series of Combustible Dust Stakeholder Meetings (read report), OSHA is intent on making a ComDust standard real. It’s a rule-making process that might not be happening if not for the Feb. 7, 2008 fatal explosion of Imperial Sugar’s plant in Port Wentworth, GA, that killed 14 and injured dozens of other workers. But happening it is.

Ever since the Imperial Sugar tragedy, Congress has taken enhanced interest in safeguarding workers from ComDust hazards and OSHA inspectors have paid greater attention to dust accumulations in the workplace. The most recent example is OSHA’s announcement that it was fining H&H Woodworking of Yonkers, NY, $130,800 for “severe” and “willful” safety violations. OSHA’s investigation of H&H Woodworking was prompted by the report of an employee who lost part of his hand operating a radial arm saw. The inspectors not only determined that the company failed to provide the required saw guards but that it was deficient in many others areas of safety, including combustible dust prevention.

Last week, we reported on a suspected combustible dust explosion at Wood-Mode Inc. of Kreamer, PA. Fortunately no one was hurt when a 75-foot silo, containing dust burned as fuel, exploded.

Combustible dust was also suspected as a factor in the fatal explosion of the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia last month. In addition, OSHA has cited ComDust violations at Formosa Plastic, Timber-Tech, Geneva Wood Fuels and Birdsong Corp., among others, this year.

Considering the vast number of dust-generating operations that exist in this country, the number of recorded ComDust incidents is small. But be that as it may, make no mistake that ComDust is fully focused on OSHA’s radar screen and a federal rule that will mandate engineering controls, training and records-keeping, is coming down the pike.

As I have said on more than one occasion in my Wood & Wood Products’ editorials over the years, keeping your plant as clean of dust as possible is not only helpful to the well-being and morale of your workers, but to the quality of your products and the image of your company.

No matter how big or small your operation might be, this issue is too real to be ignored.

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