Saturday, August 2, 2008

Dust Explosions Prior to Senate Hearing

Three days prior to the July 29, 2008 Senate Hearing on workplace Safety, “ Dangerous Dust: Is OSHA Doing Enough to Protect Workers,” ICO Polymers in Asbury, New Jersey witnessed an early morning explosion that severely burned one worker who is in critical condition with burns to his face and arms from the explosion in the plastic pulverizing unit. In the same week four other combustible dust incidents occurred throughout the nation. The cause at ICO Polymers is yet to be determined but all the ingredients are there again for another combustible dust explosion.

Prior Explosions
For instance, one year ago, last July, the same facility experienced a similar event that after an OSHA accident investigation, was deemed a combustible plastic dust explosion in Building One’s Ambient Mill. Where micronized powders of polypropylene, polystyrene, and ethylene were allowed to accumulate, which ignited and exploded, injuring a worker who suffered burns to his hands and back of his head. In this recent incident, New Jersey Fire Officials closed the facility due to the extensive structural damages to the building, which posed an imminent threat.

Recent news reports in the Hunterdon County Democrat, uncovered additional fires at the ICO Polymers facility in 1999 and several explosions in 1997, 1990, and 1989, which also injured workers. In earlier years the plant was owned by Wedco. Change of ownership has not reduced the severity or magnitude of injuries with the events reoccurring in an alarming manner.

Combustible Dust Legislation
A troubling aspect of the recent Senate hearing on combustible dust in conjunction with the recent explosion in New Jersey is that our nation’s legislators and policy makers don’t seem to understand the magnitude of the complex issue concerning combustible dust.

Since the “Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act of 2008, was introduced by Congressman George Miller (D-CA) on March 4, 2008 as a result of the February 7, 2008 catastrophic Imperial Sugar Refinery dust explosion in Port Wentworth, Georgia there have been prior hearings held in Congress. Basically, the message has been the same at all the congressional hearings, that there is a problem with the hazards of combustible dust in the nation’s manufacturing sector workplace.

NFPA Combustible Dust Standards
Yet no consensus solutions have been proposed. Instead sole blame has been placed on OSHA which doesn’t have a general industry comprehensive combustible dust standard like the grain facility standard that is already part of OSHA work-place health and safety standards since 1989.

The central aspect of the proposed legislation is incorporating National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) combustible dust standards. This is would be great if OSHA had enough resources to inspect the thousands of manufacturing plants in the nation but it doesn’t. So how will such regulations be enforced unless Congress appropriates additional funding to OSHA? It’s like declaring war yet not sending the troops for lack of funding.

Manufacturing facilities are already required to follow NFPA combustible dust standards through general consensus and nationally recognized standards of care which is recognized by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). When a violation of combustible dust is found, OSHA inspectors can cite the facility under the General Duty Clause (GDC), Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Local Jurisdiction Enforcement
Local fire and building inspectors that already conduct local inspections need to be utilized more thoroughly in the prevention and mitigation of future combustible dust fires and explosions. These are the professionals that are on the front lines daily and interact daily with local fire departments concerning specific issues that need to be addressed concerning the life safety and structural integrity of commercial buildings.

Fire codes such as the ICC International Fire Code and NFPA Uniform Fire Code already address combustible dust with references to the numerous NFPA combustible dust standards. Following the 2006 Combustible Dust Hazard Investigation, the Chemical Safety Board in addition to recommending an OSHA comprehensive combustible dust standard also outlined that many fire and building inspectors are not knowledgeable concerning combustible dust hazards.

Why hasn’t this aspect of preventing and mitigating future combustible dust incidents been included in congressional testimony? Instead attention has solely been directed at the recent Imperial Sugar incident and placing blame on OSHA as a solution in the policymaking process.

While all the political spin and maneuvering between both political parties concerning labor and business has been taking place over the past five months in regards to pending combustible dust legislation, over 70 combustible dust related fires and explosions have occurred in the nation’s manufacturing sector. The Combustible Dust Policy Institute has discovered through research that approximately 20% of these events are combustible dust explosions and an alarming number are reoccurring like the ICO Polymers accident last week.

A comprehensive combustible dust bill will not solve the problem of combustible dust fires and explosions. It’s only through the cooperation between all stakeholders throughout the national, regional, and local levels that the complex issue of combustible dust can be properly addressed in lessening the severity of future incidents.

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