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Web Date: February 12, 2008

Explosion Kills Six In Georgia

Combustible dust likely caused deadly sugar refinery blast
Department: Government & Policy
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Credit: CSB
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Credit: CSB

An explosion and fire of combustible dust at a Georgia sugar refinery killed six workers last week and renewed concerns that industry safety standards for combustible dust are inadequate. Five days after the accident, two workers remained missing, and hotspots continued to burn.

In all, 44 workers were injured, 20 of them severely enough to merit treatment at burn centers, including 17 who have been placed in "medically induced comas" because of the severity of their injuries from the Feb. 7 accident at Imperial Sugar Co. at Port Wentworth, near Savannah.

The exact cause of the accident remains unknown because the site is too unstable to allow entry except by rescue and fire personnel, says Michael Wald, a spokesman with the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety & Health Administration regional office in Georgia. The suspected explosive agent, however, is combustible dust???in this case combustible sugar dust. The Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) has dispatched five investigators to the site.

A CSB study released in November 2006 found 281 dust explosions between 1980 and 2005 that killed 119 U.S. workers and injured 718. The board''s interest was ramped up in 2003, when three accidents killed 14 workers in separate industries that shared the common trait of handling or creating combustible dust. A board report stresses that combustible materials with a particle size of 420 µm or smaller can rapidly react when exposed to oxygen and a source of ignition, causing a wave of multiple explosions.

CSB recommended in November 2006 that OSHA issue a general comprehensive combustible dust standard that addresses hazard assessment, engineering controls, housekeeping, and worker training for all industries. The general standard would be similar to OSHA regulations for the grain industry issued in the 1980s after a series of grain dust explosions, notes Daniel Horowitz, a CSB spokesman.

OSHA, however, did not agree. Instead, in October 2007, it announced a less aggressive "national emphasis program" for combustible dust, and in December, it began training its compliance officers to look for dust problems when conducting other inspections, Wald explains. The agency's program did identify industries that handle combustible dust, including sugar companies, but did not issue exact standards for OSHA inspectors to use to identify dust problems and to use to ensure safety compliance.

Wald says the emphasis program's impact is unclear because it is just beginning.

CSB called for OSHA inspection standards, Horowitz underscores, including clearly identified and enforceable regulations. Without standards, he continues, the burden is put on the inspector to show management that conditions are dangerous.

Wald would not address the need for tougher inspection requirements for combustible dust, saying it was a policy decision that rests with OSHA's headquarters, which also would not comment. Wald notes the most recent OSHA inspection of Imperial Sugar was in 2000 and turned up no problems.

 
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society

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