Health & Safety, OSHA, Work Hazards

Dangerous Dust: Shame on the Feds

From SavannahNow.com, 28 Nov 2011.

IT’S SHAMEFUL that the federal government is taking its sweet time in protecting American workers from combustible dust — the same stuff that ignited and blew up the Imperial Sugar plant in Port Wentworth in 2008, killing 14 people and injuring dozens more.

These tiny particles can become big killers. Federal safety officials know this, as they’ve been closely studying the threat posed by dust at industrial sites since 2003.

Yet for most of the nation, tighter regulations still appear to be years away. And while the feds fiddle, statistics show that deadly explosions from finely powdered food, wood, metals and chemicals occur yearly, killing and maiming multiple workers.

Here’s what’s tragic: Combustible dust has been linked to at least six deaths at industrial sites this year, five of them in separate accidents at a Tennessee plant.

These deaths may have been preventable. Indeed, if these people died at the hands of a serial killer, the government would spare no expense at identifying, tracking down and arresting the culprit. Yet in this instance, combustible dust is the known perp — and workers are still losing their lives.

Unfortunately, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which has the power to create and enforce workplace rules to control dust and cut down on explosions, has allowed itself to become bogged down by the rule-making process.

Three years ago after the Imperial Sugar explosion, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which is a federal group that investigates industrial accidents, recommended that OSHA get moving on dust rules, similar to those that have existing for grain handling in the agriculture industry for more than two decades. But OSHA hasn’t done much.

Instead, it pushed for greater education, encouraging industries to do a better job of housekeeping and dust control. While that’s all well and fine. there’s nothing like hard and fast rules to prove that OSHA means business.

This is one time when Georgia may be leading the nation when it comes to protecting its workers.

In the wake of the Imperial Sugar blast, state officials here updated fire codes for industries susceptible to dust explosions. The changes started out as emergency regulations. They’re now permanent.

What are they? The main one is pretty simple and basic: No dust shall accumulate greater than the width of a paper clip. How complicated is that?

Since Imperial Sugar, Georgia has had only one combustible dust accident. Two workers were hurt, but no one died. In other words, it has worked.

If the feds can’t or won’t do anything, then individual states like Tennessee with dust-prone industries may have to act on their own. Don’t wait for Washington, especially when it involves common-sense decision-making. How many workers must die before the feds do their jobs? Tragically, we still don’t know.

Source: SavannahNow.com, “Dangerous dust: Shame on the feds” 28 Nov 2011.

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