House moves to tighten dust standards

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives Wednesday passed legislation aimed at forcing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue stronger rules regulating combustible industrial dusts.

The new legislation would require OSHA to issue an interim standard on combustible dust within 90 days and a permanent standard within 18 months.

The largely Democratic push for a more uniform safety standard comes after snow-like pile of sugar dust ignited at the Imperial Sugar Company plant outside Savannah, Ga. in February, killing 13 workers and injuring more than 60 others.

The cause of that explosion is still under investigation, but a U.S. Chemical Safety Board study found that over nearly three decades 281 industrial dust-related fires and explosions have caused 119 deaths and more than 718 injuries.

Piles of dust in factories that manufacture everything from insulation for the automotive and construction industries to sugar can ignite and set off explosions and fires that can cause life-threatening burns or other injuries.

"Even now — after 13 needless deaths in Georgia — OSHA demonstrates no understanding of the urgency of this problem," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the bill's main author and the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. "That is a shocking failure by the very government agency responsible for keeping workers safe. Because OSHA has refused to act, Congress must."

The House measure now heads for a vote in the Senate, where it's likely to face tough opposition. Bush administration officials are critical of what they consider the bill's "expedited and one-size-fits-all regulatory approach", and President Bush is likely to veto the measure if it passes both houses of Congress.

"The bill in front of us presumes that current safety standards were insufficient, but the truth is that we don't know yet whether that is the case," Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, the top Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, said Wednesday.

During a hearing in March, safety board officials testified that a 2003 explosion at a CTA Acoustics' insulation factory in Corbin, Ky., in which seven people were killed after a fire in a faulty gas oven ignited a cloud of explosive resin dust, was one of three blasts that year that prompted the Chemical Safety Board to study explosive dust hazards.

The federal agency recommended that OSHA require other industries to adhere to strict dust standards similar to those in place for the grain industry, but OSHA hasn't made those changes.

OSHA officials have cautioned that the causes of the Imperial Sugar plant explosion haven't been determined and stressed that the agency has been working to educate workers and employers on the need to clear out dust as it accumulates. As of March, OSHA found 109 violations of rules designed to prevent explosions like the incidents at CTA and Imperial Sugar.

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