After an explosion at an Imperial Sugar Co. factory in Georgia killed 14 workers and injured dozens in 2008, U.S. officials promised rules for handling the well-known workplace hazard that caused it: combustible dust.
Six years later, there has been little change. Now, as investigators continue to explore the possibility that dust could have caused the collapse of a feed mill in Omaha, Neb., this past January, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is again delaying efforts to make good on that promise, postponing a planned review of the proposed rule’s potential impact on small business scheduled for this month. The agency now says the rule is likely years more from being finished.
Meanwhile, some experts calling for stricter standards to regulate industries where dust is common are criticizing OSHA for repeated delays in the dust rule. They say it shows the agency’s weakness amid pushback from industry groups.
“These accidents are so catastrophic when they occur and they’re readily preventable,” said Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which for years has been urging OSHA to set standards for regulating dust.
Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, said it is difficult to draft a dust rule that is technically and economically practical for a variety of businesses. These range from sawmills to smelters. OSHA is still “a number of years” from issuing a final standard, he said.
Industry groups that have advocated against a new rule say current standards suffice. “OSHA really needs to look at better enforcement of existing regulations,” said Scott Jensen, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, which argues that a new rule is unnecessary.
“We are concerned that the new rule could require costly plant and equipment retrofits that would not provide any additional safety assurances,” said Jessica McFaul, a spokeswoman for the American Forest and Paper Association.
The Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency that investigates industrial accidents, has tallied 57 combustible-dust incidents from 2009 to 2013 in which 26 people died and 129 were injured. They include three flash fires during six months at a Tennessee metals plant that killed five workers in 2011, and one last year that killed a worker and injured two at an Arkansas recycling plant. And OSHA is considering dust as a possible cause of the January mill collapse, which killed two people and injured 10.
The dangers of factory dust have been known since at least the 1700s. Grinding, polishing or packaging materials such as grains, plastics and metals all create dust. Under certain conditions, an errant spark—or static electricity—can cause the particles to ignite or explode with enough force to topple buildings.
Data on such accidents are spotty. OSHA doesn’t track all incidents, but in 2011 it tallied figures from several sources showing more than 450 dust fires or explosions from 1980 to 2011 that resulted in nearly 150 fatalities and 900 injuries. The Chemical Safety Board’s data, compiled from news articles, show reported incidents nearly doubled in the 10 years through 2012 compared with two decades earlier—though the board says increased attentiveness to the subject likely affected those figures. Board data show a decrease in reported incidents since 2011.
Other OSHA rules require firms to fix exposed electrical wires and keep workplaces free from known hazards. Advocates of a comprehensive dust rule say the agency needs a dedicated standard requiring firms to clean surfaces and equip buildings with vents and fire barriers.
One sector in which dust has been regulated is grain handling, where OSHA adopted strict rules in 1987 after a series of blasts. In 2003, OSHA said average annual deaths from such explosions in grain plants fell 70%, and injuries 55%, in the decade after the rules were issued compared with the three prior decades. Still, an average of eight grain-dust incidents occur each year.
As investigators probe what triggered the collapse of the International Nutrition Inc. plant in January, experts say one cause could be rice hulls, a seed covering that plant employees say the firm mixed into animal feed. Steve Silver, the plant’s owner, previously has denied the company worked with products that create explosive dust. The firm couldn’t be reached for comment. OSHA hasn’t determined a cause of the accident.
Some OSHA critics say the dust issue shows how the agency defers too much to industry. “In this rule and so many others, the agency is afraid of its shadow,” said Adam Finkel, a former top OSHA official and executive director at the Penn Program on Regulation at University of Pennsylvania’s law school.
“I thought for sure we were going to get a rule after Imperial Sugar,” said Tammy Miser, who has urged tougher rules since her brother died in a 2003 dust explosion at an Indiana wheel plant. “It’s very discouraging.”
OSHA says it offers free safety consultation to firms and has increased efforts to inspect dust-prone facilities. Mr. Barab highlighted the recent inclusion of combustible-dust information on safety sheets given to workers.