WASHINGTON – Legislation aimed at preventing combustible dust explosions in the workplace was re-introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last Friday.
Re-introduction of the Democrat-sponsored bill came five years after a massive explosion ripped through the Imperial Sugar factory in Port Wentworth, GA, killing 14 workers and injuring dozens more. The tragedy cast a bright spotlight on the danger posed by combustible dust in industrial facilities.
U.S. Rep John Barrow (D-GA), joined by Rep. George Miller (D-CA), and Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT), reintroduced the Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act (H.R. 691). It would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue interim protections to prevent combustible dusts, like wood coal, sugar, metal from accumulating to potentially explosive levels. The legislation would require OSHA to use relevant National Fire Association Protection (NFPA) Standards that call for dust control in both the interim and final standard. Many critics object to having NFPA standards applied across all industries.
According to U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) estimates, there have been 50 combustible dust explosions or fires, causing 15 deaths and 127 injuries, since the Feb. 7, 2007 Imperial Sugar incident. The newly re-introduced bill would require OSHA "to include relevant parts of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. In addition to items required in the interim standard, the final standard would include requirements for hazard assessment, building design and explosion protection.
"While OSHA has taken some limited steps to protect workers and property from combustible dust explosions, the widely recommended protections necessary to prevent these explosions are caught up in red tape and special interest objections," Miller said. "Because of the red tape that ties OSHA's hands, it can take an average of eight years to put new protections like this into place. While some industries have taken steps to address these hazards, workers are still being killed and injured. The only way to overcome these unnecessary delays is through the targeted legislation that will expedite protections, because red tape must not be turned into an excuse not to protect workers from a preventable tragedy."
OSHA began rule making on combustible dust almost four years ago after the same bill passed a bipartisan vote of 247 to 165. OSHA held numerous public meetings and solicited comments from stakeholders that it planned to use to craft a combustible dust prevention standard.
That effort largely stalled two years ago leading OSHA to face widespread criticsm including from Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB). "(T)he CSB called on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to 'proceed expeditiously' on our 2006 recommendation that OSHA promulgate a new combustible dust standard for general industry. We believe such a standard is necessary to reduce or eliminate hazards from fires and explosions from a wide variety of combustible powders and dust," Moure-Eraso said. "I am disappointed that OSHA has not moved forward on this recommendation. Completing a comprehensive OSHA dust standard is the major piece of unfinished business from the Imperial Sugar tragedy."
Despite not having a formal combustible dust standard on the books, OSHA has doled out numerous citations for combustible dust to wood products plants under its Hazardous Communications standards, such as that issued to Carmen Creative Cabinet of Belton, TX, last November.
Meanwhile, combustible dust remains a hot topic in British Columbia, Canada. WorkSafeBC has issued nearly 800 inspection reports and orders since Oct. 1 in its ongoing inspections of sawmills and wood products operations stemming from its crackdown on combustible dust accumulations. Nearly 250 of the write ups have been related to combustible dust issues. The inspections follow deadly explosions and fires last year at the Babine Forests Products in Burns Lake, BC, and Lakeland Mills in Prince George, BC.
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