Congress considers tougher safety rules for dust hazards

WASHINGTON — Last month's deadly explosion at a Georgia sugar refinery is playing a key role in a congressional push for better safety rules on dust hazards that could affect thousands of manufacturing facilities nationwide, safety board officials said Wednesday.

According to Chemical Safety Board officials, the Imperial Sugar Co. blast most likely occurred when snow-like piles of sugar dust ignited, setting off a series of explosions throughout the plant on Feb. 7 that killed 12 people and injured 11.

"What we've learned in my community since this disaster hit us is that the experts in the field have known about this problem for decades," Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., told members of the House Education and Labor Committee at Wednesday's hearing. "So, here we are again, and once again the cry goes up to fix this problem that's been around for so long. Only this time we're not going to forget about what happened and we're not going to stop until we do what we can to cut down this risk as much as possible."

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., urged "a proper balance between acting quickly and acting effectively," since inspectors don't fully know what caused the explosion.

Piles of dust in factories that manufacture everything from sugar to insulation products for the automotive and construction industries pose a high risk of catching fire and setting off a chain of explosions and fires, witnesses told the committee. When this happens, workers often are seriously burned and sometimes die from massive injuries.

Some lawmakers and industry experts said the deaths might have been avoided if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had enforced stricter, mandatory safeguards to prevent such explosions.

"Lives are simply too precious to be lost simply because safety standards do not exist or are not enforced," said Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky.

"The bottom line is that, under the Bush administration, OSHA has utterly failed to fulfill its congressional mandate," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. " . . . Unfortunately, we see this tragic pattern of workplace injury or death followed by OSHA inaction everywhere we look."

OSHA officials cautioned that the causes of the Imperial Sugar plant explosion haven't been determined and stressed that the agency has been working to better educate workers and employers on clearing out dust as it accumulates. As of last week, OSHA had found 109 violations of rules designed to prevent explosions such as the one at Imperial Sugar.

The agency said it might, at some point, consider changes in regulations as well.

"We would like to emphasize that the existence of a standard does not ensure that explosions will be eliminated," said Edwin Foulke, OSHA's assistant secretary. "The effectiveness of a standard always depends on how well employers implement the requirements, and many tragic accidents in the last decade could have been avoided or minimized if employers had complied with existing OSHA standards."