Burned Alive at Work: American Workers Dying in Totally Preventable Accidents
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Often, workers don’t know that the dust lurking on flat surfaces could, when dispersed in a cloud, fuel a violent explosion. But experts, worker safety advocates and government officials have been sounding alarms for years.
Steve Sallman, a health and safety official with the United Steelworkers union, still thinks about the dust fire 20 years ago that severely burned two of his co-workers at an Iowa plant making tires for agricultural vehicles. “It bothers me to this day because it was preventable,” he said.
Hindsight in the wake of dust explosions has often revealed missed warning signs. Rarely does a company develop a dust problem overnight.
“It goes along for years with the dust building up, building up, and everything’s fine, nobody’s harmed, nobody thinks anything about it,” said Sandra Bennett, an official at the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which investigated the Hoeganaes accidents. “All of a sudden, one day, boom.”
Standards to address the danger have existed for more than 85 years, but following them is voluntary for many plants. Where they do apply, enforcement is so haphazard that the association that sets the standards believes this policing duty should be placed in OSHA’s hands.
The agency seems to agree. In 2009, OSHA announced it was starting the process of issuing a rule to address combustible dust.
Three years later, the process is still stuck in its early stages, and OSHA has given up on making significant progress this year, moving the topic to its list of “long-term actions.” Some experts point to key impediments OSHA faces: the potential cost of the sweeping rule, an anti-regulatory political climate and an increasingly drawn-out rulemaking process.
Top agency officials refused to explain the rule’s status. 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.”
News of OSHA’s decision reached Chris Sherburne at the end of January, around the first anniversary of her husband’s death. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “You put it on the back burner, and that’s where it’s going to stay.”
Her frustration is shared by victims’ families who have seen other health and safety rules similarly stalled, shelved or eviscerated. Whether it’s combustible wood dust at a sawmill, disease-inducing beryllium at an aluminum smelter or lung-wrecking silica at an iron foundry, OSHA allows workers to face conditions that many experts and even the government’s own scientists consider unsafe.
OSHA’s statement said it is “committed to protecting workers,” but that “numerous steps in the regulatory process mean OSHA cannot issue standards as quickly as it would like.”
Not the first time
Documented dust explosions have been killing workers since the late 1800s or earlier, and technical publications discussing the hazard date to the early 20th century.
The Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency, has examined a handful of major dust accidents and identified disturbing trends. The board, however, can’t issue or enforce rules. Among the catastrophic accidents the board investigated, each plant also had a history of small dust fires that did little or no damage and prompted little concern.
“You have to consider all those fires as close calls for something that could kill somebody,” the board’s chairman, Rafael Moure-Eraso, said in an interview. “Hoeganaes is precisely the case in point.”