Enforcement and Inspection

Combustible Dust Takes Center Stage

OSHA is currently in the process of developing a combustible dust standard. Meanwhile, the agency has issued guidance to help industry recognize and control hazards. And OSHA may pursue enforcement actions under the general duty clause and hazard communication standard.

For at least half of its 10-year existence, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has been investigating massive explosions, fires, loss of life, horrific burn injuries, and staggering property damage caused by ignition of accumulated dust and dust clouds in a wide variety of facilities.

Most notable was a cataclysm involving sugar dust at the Imperial Sugar Company’s refinery in Wentworth, Georgia, which resulted in the deaths of 14 workers in February 2008.

CSB Chair John Bresland says that three of the four worst accidents investigated by the board resulted from the buildup of combustible dust that largely escaped the notice of facility management or was simply regarded as a matter of low importance.

Furthermore, CSB reports that OSHA inspectors are not citing facilities for dust hazards because they have not been trained to do so. For example, in at least two cases, state OSHA inspectors failed to identify dust hazards at facilities where dust explosions later occurred.

CSB blames a patchwork of general worker protection standards at the federal level as well as varying state and local regulations for inconsistent implementation, inspection, and enforcement with regard to dust hazards.

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Standard in the Works?

These conditions would change dramatically if OSHA were to develop a national standard for dust hazards in general industry—and that looks likely.

In an advance notice of proposed rulemaking on combustible dust, OSHA identified five National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) combustible dust standards that address the hazards of combustible dust processes. A possible rulemaking approach would be to incorporate relevant NFPA standards by reference into an OSHA combustible dust safety standard.

OSHA is currently convening stakeholder meetings to evaluate possible regulatory methods and request data and comments on issues related to combustible dust, such as hazard recognition, assessment, communication, defining combustible dust, and other concerns.

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National Emphasis

In the past few years, recognizing the danger, yet lacking a national standard to control of dust hazards, OSHA has been taking several actions to address the risk. At the urging of CSB, OSHA launched national emphasis programs (NEPs) in 2007 and 2008. The intent of the NEPs was to increase OSHA enforcement activities and focus on specific industry groups that have experienced either frequent combustible dust incidents or combustible dust incidents with catastrophic consequences.

In the absence of a standard specific to combustible dust, "enforcement" in this case refers in part to compliance with OSHA’s general duty clause, which compels employers to furnish employment and a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

Violations may also be cited under OSHA’s hazard communication standard (HCS). The HCS (29 CFR 1910.1200) requires all employers to provide information to their employees about the hazardous chemicals to which they are exposed by means of a hazard communication program, labels and other forms of warning, MSDSs, and information and training.

In the Near Future

Major OSHA standards typically take years and even decades to develop, particularly when industry is intent on ensuring that standards address actual risks and do not impose inordinate technical, management, and economic burdens.

Given that a national combustible dust standard will probably not be appearing in the near future, OSHA recently issued guidance to help manufacturers and importers of chemicals recognize the potential for dust explosions and to identify appropriate protective measures as part of their hazard determination under the hazard communication standard.

The guidance may signal a new awareness of dust hazards among OSHA inspectors and OSHA’s interest in reversing the historical absence of enforcement of the general duty clause, the HCS, and perceived safety violations in the workplace.

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2 thoughts on “Combustible Dust Takes Center Stage”

  1. While an OSHA standard needs to be developed…and sooner rather than later, I think most stakeholders are hoping OSHA takes the time to get input from everyone effected, and really takes all the opinions (and facts!) into consideration. But before any rule takes effect, an education/awareness campaign is in high demand. There are so many questions no matter where you stand in the issue. http://www.explosionproof-vacuum.com

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