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OSHA Takes Heat for Refinery Fire

April 15, 2008
Congressional committee says it could have done more to prevent fatal blast.

The Labor Department's safety administration failed to implement rules that could have prevented combustible dust accidents, such as the deadly February blast that killed 13 workers at a sugar refinery in Georgia, the House Education and Labor Committee determined during a March hearing.

In response, Democratic Reps. George Miller of California and John Barrow of Georgia introduced legislation that would force the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to regulate combustible industrial dusts that create explosion hazards. OSHA will fine-tune and expand its National Emphasis Program (NEP) for combustible dusts implemented in October, but OSHA has not indicated any immediate plans to create a mandatory standard. "After the NEP has been in effect and we have conducted enough inspections, we will evaluate and review the inspection data to determine if the standards we currently have are adequate to address combustible dust hazards," OSHA director Edwin Foulke said to the Congressional committee, according to IW sister publication Occupational Hazards.

The reissued NEP directive calls for increased enforcement of safety measures at facilities where multiple combustible dust incidents or disasters have occurred. State participation in the program is voluntary. The U.S. Chemical and Safety Board (CSB) concluded in a preliminary investigation that OSHA does not have a standard that effectively controls dust explosion risks, according to the House Education and Labor Committee. The CSB has noted that standards set by the National Fire Protection Agency are effective in preventing dust explosions.

The blast that brought combustible dust concerns to light occurred in February at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Ga., near Savannah. The CSB says the fire was likely fueled by combustible sugar dust. Days after the Congressional hearing the blast claimed its 13th victim when a patient in an Augusta hospital died. One employee injured in the explosion has already filed a lawsuit in a Georgia state court, according to the Associated Press.

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