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Burned Alive at Work: American Workers Dying in Totally Preventable Accidents

A push to protect workers from the danger of dust explosions has stalled in the face of bureaucratic hurdles, industry pushback and political calculations.

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In Gallatin, the fire department’s senior inspector visited the Hoeganaes plant in May 2011 — after the first two fires but before the third. He noted a list of concerns, including inadequate emergency lighting and the need to keep exit routes clear. He didn’t mention combustible dust.

The department eventually noted dust levels during inspections this January and March. Asked if inspectors ever brought up combustible dust with Hoeganaes before last year’s accidents, Fire Chief William Crook said, “If they have, I’m not aware of it.”

The CSB found a similar pattern after other accident investigations in Indiana and North Carolina: Fire officials had missed dust problems in inspections before deadly accidents.

Recognizing dangers that could lead to dust fires and explosions also can be a problem for companies and their insurers. In investigations of four dust explosions that killed 28 workers, the CSB found insurers had missed serious dust hazards during audits in each case.

In Gallatin, the insurer Allianz did note the potential risks from iron dust in a 2008 audit. Hoeganaes commissioned testing in 2009 and 2010 that showed its dust was combustible. In August 2010, Hoeganaes hired a company to clean up the dust, according to a  report by the state inspector examining the January 2011 accident. But, the report notes, “it was apparent that the employer was not ensuring clean up [sic] was maintained through good housekeeping practices between these cleanings.” Piles of dust up to four inches thick sat on equipment throughout the plant, the inspector found.

Such breakdowns point to the need for an OSHA standard, which could lead to “broader recognition and the potential for stronger enforcement,” said Guy Colonna, manager of the NFPA division that oversees the association’s combustible dust standards.

Still, enforcement by OSHA isn’t a perfect solution. The CSB’s  2006 study found that OSHA inspectors weren’t adequately trained to recognize dust hazards.

In a statement, OSHA said it developed a three-and-a-half-day session to train its inspectors to recognize combustible dust hazards in December 2007. But the agency can get to only a fraction of the plants that may have dust problems.

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. Asked for an estimate of the number of plants that meet the criteria for inspection under the program, though, OSHA said the total was likely “in tens of thousands.”

Applying the program without a combustible dust standard in place means inspectors must resort to issuing citations for rules not written to address dust. If dust is piling up around the plant, for example, housekeeping standards might apply. If wires are exposed, electrical safety rules might form the basis for a citation.

OSHA can use the “general duty clause” to cite companies for exposing workers to well-known dangers not addressed by specific standards. This approach, however, often leaves the agency vulnerable to industry challenge.

Consider Hoeganaes: The last time the plant was inspected by the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration before the 2011 fires was in 2008. The inspector, Dave McMurray, visited the plant after the agency received information that a few workers had suffered hearing loss — problems for which he ended up  citing the company.

While he was there, however, he saw enough iron dust collecting around the plant to cause concern. “If you put your hand on the railings, it would come away black,” McMurray, who is now retired, recalled in an interview.

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