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Imperial Sugar CEO latest to call for OSHA combustible dust standard

11 September 2012

Imperial Sugar CEO John C. Sheptor is the latest in a long line of prominent figures to call for the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to speed up its plans to introduce a definitive combustible dust standard for US industry.

Imperial Sugar CEO John C. Sheptor: “Where I am most displeased is that we still do not have a standard from Washington."
Imperial Sugar CEO John C. Sheptor: “Where I am most displeased is that we still do not have a standard from Washington."

In a keynote speech at the AIHce 2012 conference in Indianapolis, Sheptor explained how the company recovered from the devastating February 2008 explosion at its Port Wentworth, Georgia, sugar refinery. Fourteen people died after more than 30 explosions ripped through the refinery, and dozens of employees were injured. Sheptor was in the plant at the time and survived only because he was protected by a fire wall, he said. 

Sheptor said experts believe a failed bearing overheated and touched off the explosions in the plant. Today, any accumulation of a 1/32 inch layer or more of sugar dust triggers a shutdown of the production line and will be investigated by a committee, he said.  It had taken time to transform the culture so employees would take action themselves when such conditions were found, he added, but that has now been accomplished.

 “I am relatively pleased by my industry’s response,” he said. “Where I am most displeased is that we still do not have a standard from Washington.  There needs to be a standard that educates on proper ways to manage combustible dust hazards.”

Earlier this year the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), following its review of the fatal metal dust explosions at the Hoeganaes plant in Tennessee, called for OSHA to develop and publish a proposed combustible dust standard within one year.

Since 1980, more than 450 accidents involving dust have killed nearly 130 workers and injured another 800-plus, according to Center for Public Integrity analysis of data compiled by OSHA and the CSB, and this is likely to be significantly understated given inconsistent reporting requirements.

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards to address the danger have existed for more than 85 years, but following them is voluntary for many plants, and in April 2009, OSHA announced it was starting the rulemaking process for combustible dust.

Three years later, the process is still stuck in its early stages, and OSHA has moved it over to its list of “long-term actions.” Some experts point to key impediments OSHA faces: the large potential cost of the rule’s introduction, an anti-regulatory political climate and an increasingly drawn-out rulemaking process.

In a statement, OSHA said, “Prevention of worker injuries and fatalities from combustible dust remains a priority for the agency.” But, the statement said, developing the rule is “very complex,” and “could affect a wide variety of industries and workplace conditions. As a result it has been moved to long-term action to give the agency time to develop the analyses needed to support a cost-effective rule.”

Since October 2007, OSHA has been targeting plants that may have dust problems through a special enforcement program. During that time, the agency and its state counterparts have conducted more than 2,800 inspections. But asked for an estimate of the number of plants that meet the criteria for inspection under the program, OSHA said the total was likely “in the tens of thousands.”

After OSHA’s April 2009 announcement, CSB chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said he felt that his organisation’s efforts had finally paid off. “And then we wait and we wait. And there are more accidents; there are more fatalities. And this process continues, and it seems to be never-ending.”

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