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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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Without a combustible dust standard, he felt his only option was to see whether workers were breathing levels of dust that might pose a health risk — a hazard for which there was a standard. The samples, however, weren’t above the limit. The monitors measured only what was in the air near the workers at the time, not what had collected on ledges and rafters.

McMurray felt there was little he could do. “It’s a whole world of difference when we have a standard,” he said. “When we have a specific standard, we go for it.” At Hoeganaes, he said, “I went as far as I thought I could.”

After the fires in 2011, state regulators drew on a variety of standards to  cite Hoeganaes. They alleged electrical safety violations, shoddy maintenance of the hydrogen pipe that leaked in May and an inadequate emergency response plan, for example. They accused the company of allowing dust to build up throughout the plant and failing to train workers on its dangers.

Hoeganaes contested every citation. Among the  legal arguments the company has raised: State officials are trying to enforce a combustible dust rule that doesn’t exist.

‘Past time to issue a standard’

Four years ago, Jamie Butler sat on a curb outside the burning wreckage of the packing building at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Ga., an industrial hub near Savannah. His brother sat beside him. They’d escaped one of the  worst dust explosions in U.S. history.

There had been a ball of flame, Butler recalled, and then fire everywhere — on the walls, on machines, in the air. Sugar dust had exploded in a conveyor belt, then triggered blasts throughout the plant. Dust that had built up over the years fueled the explosions and rained down on Butler and his co-workers.

Butler had found a hole that had been blown in the wall and made it, with his brother, to the curb outside. They talked for a minute or two, before emergency responders loaded Butler into one ambulance and his brother into another. “That was the last time I ever saw my brother,” Butler said.

The disaster killed 14 people — including Butler’s brother and uncle, a longtime plant employee — and left dozens burned. Butler, now 29 with three children, remained in a coma for months; he has severe burns on his head, face, legs and arms. “Since I got burned, I’ll be in the hospital on a regular basis, just sick, throwing up, dehydrated,” he said recently, sitting in his lawyer’s riverfront office. “I don’t sweat how I used to sweat.”

The blast was the type of catastrophe that can spur reform. Congress held a hearing, and then-Sen. Barack Obama said in a statement, “It is past time to issue a standard to prevent these kinds of accidents.”

Even before Imperial Sugar, the CSB had investigated a series of deadly dust accidents and  recommended in 2006 that OSHA issue a rule to protect workers from dust fires and explosions. After investigating the disaster in Port Wentworth, the board again  urged OSHA to act.

This time, OSHA appeared to be listening. It launched a  special enforcement program targeting companies with unaddressed dust problems. In April 2009, the agency  announced it was starting the rulemaking process.

“We felt that our efforts had paid off,” CSB chairman Moure-Eraso said recently. “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.”

Long rulemaking processes have become the norm for OSHA. For the 58 significant standards the agency has issued since 1981, the average time from beginning the process to finalizing the rule was almost eight years, a recent study by the Government Accountability Office found.

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