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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.

GALLATIN, Tenn. — Small fires were a part of the job at the Hoeganaes Corp. metal powder plant 30 miles northeast of Nashville. By early 2011, some workers later  told investigators, they had become practiced in beating down the flames with gloved hands or a fire extinguisher.

The company’s own product fueled the fires. Scrap metal rolls into the rust-colored plant on the town’s industrial periphery and is melted, atomized and dried into a fine iron powder sold to makers of car parts. Sometimes, powder leaked from equipment and coated ledges and rafters. Under the right conditions, it smoldered.

Wiley Sherburne, a 42-year-old plant electrician, sometimes told his wife how this dust piled up everywhere, she recalled. On quieter weekend shifts, he said he could hear the telltale popping sound of dust sparking when it touched live electricity.

In the early morning of January 31, 2011, Sherburne was called to check out a malfunctioning bucket elevator that totes dust through the plant. Near his feet, electrical wires lay exposed. When the machine restarted, the jolt knocked dust into the air. A spark — likely from the exposed wires, investigators later concluded — turned the dust cloud into a ball of flame that engulfed Sherburne and a co-worker.

“He’s burned over 95 percent of his body,” doctors told Sherburne’s wife, Chris, when she arrived at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s burn unit. “He’s not going to live.” Her husband died two days later.

The fires at the Hoeganaes plant were not over. Another struck in March, then a third in May. In all, five workers died in accidents that shook this small community. Each man left behind a wife and children. One had four children under 11. Another became a grandfather the day before an explosion caused fatal burns.

Each blaze here involved  combustible dust, a little-noticed danger that has killed or injured at least 900 workers across the country during the past three decades. The fuel has varied, but the effects have been similarly devastating. In Gallatin, it was  iron. In Port Wentworth, Ga.,  sugar. In Kinston, N.C., plastic. Elsewhere, dust from substances as varied as wood, nylon fiber, coal and flour sparked fires and explosions.

Since 1980, more than 450 accidents involving dust have killed nearly 130 workers and injured another 800-plus, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data compiled by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Both agencies, citing spotty reporting requirements, say these numbers are likely significant understatements.

Yet a push to issue a rule protecting workers from the danger has stalled in the face of bureaucratic hurdles, industry pushback and political calculations, the Center for Public Integrity found.

OSHA, in a statement, said it must “make difficult decisions as to how to best allocate the agency’s limited rulemaking resources.” While addressing dangers like combustible dust and dangerous substances breathed by workers are important, OSHA said, it “has placed a great deal of emphasis on broad rulemaking efforts that have the potential to result in fundamental changes [for] safety and health in the workplace.”

Representatives for Hoeganaes refused interview requests from the Center for Public Integrity. In a legal filing, the company has denied violating safety standards at the Tennessee plant where Wiley Sherburne died.

‘All of a sudden one day, boom’

A dust fire is, in a sense, the result of a perfect storm. The powder has to form a cloud in a confined area and touch an ignition source, such as a spark, flame or overheated pipe. “It’s this unlikeliness that leads people to the false sense of security that it can’t occur,” said  John Cholin, an engineer who has investigated dust accidents for 30 years and has a consulting firm.

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