Tuesday, June 24, 2008

OSHA Combustible Dust Blame Game

Over the past year OSHA has constantly been negatively portrayed in the national headlines concerning workplace safety issues. Several weeks ago CBS 60 Minutes aired a segment, questioning whether current OSHA workplace health and safety regulations are adequate in protecting the nation's workforce from the hazards of combustible dust in the manufacturing sector.

Prior to this sensationalism in journalism , the House Education and Labor Committee through the leadership of Congressman George Miller (D-CA), drafted a crafty bill and held congressional hearings on combustible dust. Now after passage in the House, HR 5522, the Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act awaits hearings and a vote in the Senate and eventually the Presidents signature.

False Presumption

Through all the political hoopla and national media attention after the tragic sugar dust explosion at the Imperial Sugar Refinery on February 7, 2008 in Port Wentworth , Georgia many including the provider of content on this site have mistakenly concluded that OSHA is at fault in not providing sufficient combustible dust regulations. This is a false presumption when the facts of the complex combustible dust issue are revealed.

Its much easier for congressional leaders to place all the blame on OSHA instead of fully researching the cause and effect of combustible dust incidents. Unfortunately, the media picks up on this misinformation and political spin that is perpetuated in conjunction with the Imperial Sugar Refinery tragedy.

Local Issue not Federal

Hazards of combustible dust in the manufacturing sector is a municipal, state or regional issue, not a federal problem. Whenever there is a fire or explosion at a manufacturing facility with combustible dust involved, who are the first responders in extinguishing the fire? Of course, it's either the facility fire brigade or the local fire department.

What jurisdictional protections must be followed to ensure the life safety and structural integrity of commercial buildings is instituted and maintained? Yes, thats correct, building and fire codes. Since when has it been OSHA's responsibility to act as first responders to industrial fires and enforcement of fire codes?

Fire Codes

Currently states are either utilizing the International Code Council, International Fire Code (IFC) or the National Fire Protection Association, Uniform Fire Code(UFC) with references to the numerous NFPA combustible dust codes. Following the 2006 Dust Hazard Study, the Chemical Safety Board determined that many fire inspectors are not knowledgeable concerning the hazards of combustible dust that are referenced in the fire codes. Additionally, the CSB report discovered that the IFC or UFC fire codes adopted by several states had not been properly addressed in relation to combustible dust concerning commercial buildings.

Standard of Care

So is the fire code issue an OSHA problem? As enforcement action, OSHA currently utilizes the General Duty Clause for manufacturing facilities that violate workplace health and safety standards concerning combustible dust hazards. These standards in addition to current OSHA regulations include nationally recognized standards of care that is recognized by industry consensus through the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Many of these standards of care include NFPA 484 (metal dust), NFPA 664 (wood dust), NFPA 61 (agricultural/food dust), NFPA 654 (combustible particulate solids), and NFPA 120 (coal dust).

Conclusion

The combustible dust bill, HR 5522, the Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act is redundant, which will require OSHA to incorporate the NFPA combustible dust codes that already are part of state fires codes. Furthermore, OSHA does not have enough financial resources and inspectors to inspect local manufacturing facilities with regularity like local jurisdictions do.

Georgia has taken the lead in requiring manufacturing facilities that generate combustible dust to register with the state. This action is similar to the
European Union combustible dust ATEX directive requiring explosion protection document submittal from manufacturing facilities. Workplace protection from the hazards of combustible dust need not be controlled at the federal level.

Instead of the question,
"Would combustible dust explosions occur if an OSHA comprehensive combustible dust standard was instituted?" The appropiate question would be, "Would combustible dust explosions occur if current fire codes followed the references to the NFPA combustible dust codes?"

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