Thursday, March 27, 2008

OSHA’s Scorched Earth Campaign-Combustible Dusts


Last time Americans heard of a scorched earth campaign was nearly a century and a half ago toward the end of the Civil War when Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman conducted his “Savannah Campaign’ and “March to the Sea” from Atlanta to the port of Savannah. In his wake, he burned everything to the ground except courthouses, churches, and dwellings. In the background of the procession, military bands played on, while his troops sang the chilling words “John Brown's soul goes marching on!"

Conflicting Campaigns

Fast forward into the twentieth-first century and another more productive campaign is happening across the nation’s heartland to the tune of a different song and that is the prevention of future preventable and predictable combustible dust related explosions and fires. At the forefront of this complex issue is OSHA’s conflicting scorched earth campaign in staunchly opposing labor’s desire in a comprehensive combustible dust standard in its health and safety regulations. In the meantime the nation’s economic industrial infrastructure is burning to the ground due to the alarming prevalence of combustible dust explosions and fires.

In the same southern maritime port of the Savannah River where General Sherman ended his “March to the Sea,” the United States suffered a horrific loss of lives and property with the explosion of the Georgia’s Imperial Sugar Refinery caused by combustible sugar dust. Fifteen months prior to the explosion, the Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents to protect workers, the public, and the environment, made recommendations concerning the implementation of OSHA combustible dust standard, which OSHA failed to act on.

Scorched Infrastructure

So now the nation’s workforce is living under an OSHA ‘scorched earth” policy. Haunting recurrences of combustible dust explosion occurred yesterday in Dudley, North Carolina where a Georgia-Pacific wood processing plant experienced over $ 20,000 of damages when four of its dust collectors exploded causing a small fire in the main structure. Luckily there were no injuries.

Yet unfortunately several years earlier, 35 miles up the road on January 19, 2003 the West Pharmaceutical Services plant in Kinston, North Carolina was not so lucky when it was scorched to the earth from a preventable combustible dust explosion, resulting in 6 fatalities and 38 injuries. Luck can only go so far with combustible dusts where many substances of wood, metal, plastic, food, coal, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals have minimum ignitions energies (MIE) less than gunpowder at the millijoule level.

One Size Fits All

And that’s where the problem lays, OSHA’s position that a “one size fits all” combustible dust health and safety standard will not work due to the diversity of raw materials involved in the manufacturing process. The public should not be mislead by this position regarding a very complex subject of dust cloud formation and ignition processes in addition to flame propagation and blast waves generated by burning dust clouds.

OSHA’s upper management, in which Edwin Foulke is the leader, is still under the false assumption that combustible dusts ignite due to diverse flash points. This could be further from the truth. For example, there is no such thing as flash points like in flammable liquids and vapors when regulating combustible dusts. Instead the physical and fire properties include minimum ignition temperature (MIT), minimum explosive concentration (MEC), minimum ignition energy (MIE), and deflagration indexes (Kst)

Combustible Dust Properties

Most combustible dusts have a minimum ignition temperature (MIT) of less than 932 degree Fahrenheit (500 C), which is the temperature of a match that has been immediately extinguished. Regarding deflagration indexes (Kst) or explosive properties, which is the amount of pressure rising over a period of time there are four classes: no explosion, weak, strong and very strong. Sugar dust as in the Imperial Sugar Refinery explosion has a weak Kst index as does the polyethylene plastic dust that was involved in the West Pharmaceutical dust explosion.

The subject of combustible dusts is a fascinating science wrought with new terms unfamiliar to most people in contrast to flammable liquids and vapors which are regulated in accordance with their flash points and hazardous classes. Combustible dusts can be understood at the same level if the analogy is used between flash points in vapors generated from flammable liquids in comparison to minimum ignition temperatures for combustible dusts generated from combustible particulate solids.

National Emphasis Program
OSHA’s “scorched earth” policy in regards to combustible dust is intensified when misleading proclamations are made in leading global and national publications such as the USA Today Op/Ed column where OSHA Director Edwin Foulke states “last fall OSHA initiated a nationwide program to increase inspections in high-risk workplaces.” This could be further from the truth as there is no nationwide national emphasis program for combustible dusts.

For instance 26 states have approved state plans, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Virgin Islands plans cover public sector (State & local government) employment only. Which translates into fine print that State plan participation in the combustible dust national emphasis effort is strongly encouraged but is not required. Additionally, State response/notice of intent regarding this directive is required. So far none of the 23 states have an emphasis program for combustible dusts. In all fairness, Michigan, Indiana, Virginia, and Tennessee are in the process of adopting at state emphasis combustible dust program.

Reoccurring Dust Explosions

In the meantime over the last seven weeks since the catastrophic Imperial Sugar Refinery combustible dust explosion there have been over two dozen combustible dust related fires and explosions across the nation spanning from the Pacific to the Atlantic . These predictable and preventable events have ranged in a diverse set of industries and institutions such as food, wood, metal, textile, and rubber industries. In addition to an Xcel coal power plant in Minnesota and Sheboygan Falls High School in Wisconsin. Even General Tecumseh Sherman’s scorched earth policy “March to the Sea,” had not ranged this far in proportion in such a short amount of time.

It should not take an act of Congress like the proposed bill, “HR 5522, The Combustible Dust Fire and Explosion Prevention Act of 2008" that the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on March 12, 2008 to provide stimulus for OSHA to act. Instead sound and persuasive leadership is needed at the Department of Labor, where industry, labor, and governmental leaders can reach a comprehensive agreement in providing the health and safety protection that the country now desperately needs.

Global Alternative

An excellent alternative to the conflicting points of view between the stakeholders would be to review programs that our global trading and security partners have. For example, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and the United Kingdom already have health and safety regulations concerning explosive atmospheres like combustible dusts.

The European Union has instituted ATEX 95 equipment directive 94/9/EC and ATEX 137 workplace directive 99/92/EC. The unusual ATEX acronym is derived from French: Appareils destinés à être utilisés en ATmosphères EXplosibles .The United Kingdom with guidance from ATEX 95, has implemented the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR) which require employers to control the risks to safety from fire and explosions.

Additionally, down under, Australia and New Zealand and doing the same with a phase in program spread out over the years like the United States did for the 2002 Homeland Security Act. After a period of six years and billions of dollars government and industry are completing the last aspects of homeland security with the controversial Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC). Instead of protecting from a threat on the outside with the Homeland Security Act., the OSH Act with a comprehensive combustible dust standard can protect from the scorched earth occurring within.

Photo Credit:
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

North Carolina Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires


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