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13 Workers Dead: A Look at the 'Shocking' and "Disgraceful' Imperial Sugar Tragedy

VP at Imperial Sugar admits that working conditions at the plant where an explosion took the lives of 13 workers earlier this year were terrible.
 
 
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"Shocking" and "disgraceful" are not the sort of words we expect to hear from a corporate executive when referring to his or her own company, but that's exactly what happened at a recent Senate hearing about the conditions at Imperial Sugar. Those descriptors made up part of the testimony of Graham H. Graham, vice president for operations at the company, which was recently hit with a proposed fine of $5 million by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in connection with conditions that caused a dust explosion earlier this year at its Port Wentworth, Georgia plant that killed 13 workers. Another fine of $3.7 million was proposed by OSHA in connection with similar problems at the company's operation in Gramercy, Louisiana.

"It was without a doubt the dirtiest and most dangerous manufacturing plant I had ever come to," said Graham about the non-union Port Wentworth refinery, which he toured after being hired by Imperial Sugar late last year. He claimed to have pointed out more than 400 safety violations and was in the process of having them corrected when the accident occurred. CEO John Sheptor, who declined to testify at the hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, told the Associated Press that Graham has "exaggerated numerous things regularly about our facilities." Sheptor's p.r. people should have told him that line doesn't work when you have the blood of 13 workers on your hands.

In addition to the fines -- which Imperial Sugar is contesting and in any event would not put too much of a dent in a company which in its last fiscal year had profits of $53 million on revenues of $875 million -- AP reports that criminal charges are possible.

Any investigation should not stop with the immediate managers at the plants. The conditions at the Imperial Sugar refineries appear to have been so horrendous that the failure to clean them up must have in effect been a company policy emanating from the highest levels -- the CEO and other top executives. Accountability should also fall on the members of the board of directors of the publicly traded company, whose non-executive members are the following:

- James J. Gaffney (Chairman), a consultant to investment funds affiliated with Goldman Sachs

- Curtis G. Anderson, chairman of the investment company Anderson Capital

- Gaylord O. Coan, former CEO of poultry processor Gold Kist

- Yves-Andre Istel, vice chairman of investment bank Rothschild Inc.

- Robert S. Kopriva, former CEO of Sara Lee Foods

- Gail A. Lione, executive vice president of Harley-Davidson

- David C. Moran, president of U.S. consumer products at H.J. Heinz

- John K. Sweeney, a managing director at investment bank Lehman Brothers.

Sweeney deserves special attention because Lehman Brothers is the largest shareholder in Imperial Sugar, with a 28 percent stake. Lehman claims that part of its corporate mission is to "be one of the most responsible investment banks." It could show those words mean something by using its influence to get Imperial Sugar to start showing some concern about the safety of its workers.

Phil Mattera is research director of Good Jobs First and head of its Corporate Research Project .

 
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