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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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Nor did meeting the rule’s requirements ruin the industry. The association cited the “economic benefit of implementing the grain handling standard” and wrote, “We firmly believe that there is overwhelming evidence supporting the grain handling standard’s effectiveness in preventing fires and explosions and resulting injuries during a time when grain handling capacity increased almost sixty percent.”

OSHA’s current attempts to address combustible dust are more complicated, encompassing many different industries with different types of dust. But some view the grain dust rule as an example of what could be accomplished.

“A general industry standard does have the potential to be at least as successful [as the grain dust standard] in terms of awareness, but how successful depends on the specifics of the regulation,” said  Bob Zalosh, a consultant who investigates accidents and advises companies on prevention.

Some in Congress want OSHA to act now. California  Rep. George Miller and two other House Democrats have introduced a bill that would require the agency to issue an interim rule within a year.

“The fact that workers are killed and injured in all too frequent, clearly preventable combustible dust explosions shows that Congress must act,” Miller said in a statement to the Center. “Legislation is needed to protect workers because of the years it takes to cut through the red tape just to get a final protection in place.”

‘Fall through the cracks at every level’

In Georgia, the building Jamie Butler and his co-workers knew during their time at Imperial Sugar is long gone, consumed entirely by the inferno of February 2008. In its place is a modern packing facility company officials say stands as evidence of what they learned from the disaster. The project, which included some work on the refinery itself, took about two years and cost roughly $220 million, vice president of manufacturing Raylene Carter said.

“If there is ever an explosion again — and that’s just not going to happen — it would never spread from building to building ever again,” Imperial Sugar health and safety official Kathleen Gonzalez said during a recent tour, pointing to a system designed to blanket the area with water and halt a fire in its tracks.

Sugar no longer enters the packing building on a conveyor belt — the location of the initial explosion in 2008. It is shot through pipes in pellets packed so densely that they shouldn’t be able to ignite. Sensors can detect the first signs of sparks in the pipes, then automatically isolate the area and flood it with a neutralizing solution.

Near work areas, vacuums take spilled dust to a vessel outside the building — a contrast from the company’s previous practice of using compressed air to clean dust, which blew it onto ledges and rafters where it eventually was shaken loose, fueling explosions. A sign reminds workers, “Your job is not complete until your work area is CLEAN.”

The company  has told OSHA it “strongly support[s]” issuing a combustible dust rule. “We believe that there is still a low level of knowledge of the extent of hazards of combustible dust in industry,” the company wrote OSHA.

Such about-faces often come  after deaths have occurred — and company officials, inspectors or auditors missed warning signs. The NFPA’s Colonna said he is frequently called to conduct training after explosions — in Georgia after the Imperial Sugar catastrophe, and in Kentucky after a 2003 dust explosion killed seven workers. This March, the Gallatin Fire Department’s two inspectors attended a two-day training seminar on combustible dust led by the NFPA, said Crook, the department’s chief.

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