Special Topics in Safety Management

Big Blowup Over Combustible Dust: Is a New Law Coming?

As reported as recently as last Sunday’s broadcast of TV’s “60 Minutes,” dust from sugar, flour, or other common materials, concentrated in certain conditions, can explode like a bomb. Critics say OSHA has done little about it, despite the loss of 119 lives. Now Congress has, and the result might be a new law affecting your business.

Say the word “explosives” to most people, and they’ll likely visualize sticks of dynamite, vials of nitroglycerin, or the deadly plastic-like stuff used by the military. What they’ll probably not think of is dust, gently floating in the air, and virtually invisible until hit by a beam of light.

Certain kinds of dust, however — from substances as mundane as flour or sugar — when mixed with air, and ignited to a high enough temperature, are as incendiary as gasoline. And when the fire they feed is bound in confined spaces, they can have the explosive power of a small bomb.

That power has been tragically demonstrated in some 281 incidents since 1980, killing 119 workers, and injuring more than 700, as well as doing millions of dollars in damage. One incident earlier this year, at an Imperial Sugar plant in Georgia, killed 13.

A new OSHA standard regulating combustible dust may be on the way. Be ready before it happens. Attend BLR’s June 25 audio conference, Combustible Dust: How to Protect Your Workplace from this Insidious Hazard. Can’t attend that date? Pre-order the CD.Satisfaction assured. Click for full details.

OSHA has officially recognized the destructive power of “combustible dust,” as it’s called, since the 1980s.  Following a string of explosions in grain-processing plants, the agency put dust control standards into effect for that industry. However, no more general combustible dust standard has been  issued, despite recommendations from the government’s U.S. Chemical Safety Board, as recently as 2006, to do so. 

Instead, the agency has issued voluntary advisories of the danger to more than 30,000 businesses, and stated its belief that existing standards on ventilation and housekeeping also provide protection against dust hazards. Agency officials have also pointed out that it would be difficult to create a single standard that works across disparate industries. “The flashpoint of metal dust is higher than it is for sugar or flower dust,” said OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke, Jr.

Such replies have not satisfied the agency’s critics. “Absent a comprehensive OSHA standard for combustible dust,” said William Wright, of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, as reported by Occupational Health & Safety, “no one can be confident that dust hazards will be cited and corrected prior to the occurrence of additional accidents.” 

The response has gone beyond criticism. Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, George Miller (D-California) and John Barrow (D-Georgia), held hearings on the situation, eliciting dramatic and tragic testimony about prior incidents. One witness, Tammy Miser, received widespread news coverage as she related how her brother lay dying before horrified onlookers as burning aluminum dust incinerated his body. The story was highlighted once again in last Sunday’s edition of TV’s “60 Minutes.”

Your satisfaction with BLR’s June 25 audio conference, Combustible Dust: How to Protect Your Workplace from this Insidious Hazard, is assured, or you get a full refund.
Can’t attend? Preorder the CD.   Click for info.

The hearings have resulted in a proposed new law, The Combustible Dust Explosion and Fire Prevention Act, H.R. 5522, which would, in effect, force OSHA’s hand. The law would require the agency to issue an interim final standard on dust within just 90 days of enactment, followed by a final standard within 18 months.

A usually divided U.S. House of Representatives bridged the aisle to pass the measure, 247-165, with 21 Republicans joining the Democratic majority, though the Republicans did object to the speed with which regulations would be required. The bill now moves to the Senate.

We’ll cover the requirements the law would put on business, and describe an upcoming audio conference that covers those possibilities in detail in tomorrow’s Safety Daily Advisor.


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