Friday, August 8, 2008

OSHA Grain Facility Standard Not Working

If the OSHA grain facility standard is suppose to reduce the prevalence of combustible dust accidents in the grain industry here in the United States, then why has 10 grain facility explosions occurred over the past ten months? Since the tragic Imperial Sugar Refinery dust explosion, the Combustible Dust Policy Institute has recorded on the Google Grain Facility Incident Map through online news reports, 17 combustible dust fires and explosions at grain facilities with 35% of these events occurring as explosions.

In contrast, over the past six months with over 70 combustible dust explosions and fires in the manufacturing sector, 22 % have been explosions. Surprisingly, the number of injuries when comparing to combustible dust events between the two industry sectors are approximately the same.

Acceptable Explosions
Recent Senate testimony at a combustible dust hearing by governmental officials have stated that the number of grain facility combustible dust fires and explosions have been reduced since the OSHA Grain Facility Standard was introduced two decades ago. So what is an acceptable number of accidents if combustible grain dust explosions and fires are happening at the same pace as incidents in manufacturing plants?

The only difference between the two is the tragic event at Imperial Sugar, which gained the attention of congressional leaders to take preventative action. It's only a matter a time before the magnitude of the Georgia event catches up with the grain industry.

Take a fast rewind over 3o years ago, to 1977 when several grain silo facilities eerily exploded within days of each other creating a heavy death toll. It was these events that initiated legislation for the OSHA Grain Facility Standard. Earthquakes on the West Coast of high magnitude in metropolitan areas have the same effect. The events are spaced out many years apart but still result in high fatalities, injuries, and extreme economic damage.

Right Idea...Misguided Approach
It's commendable that legislators desire OSHA regulations with protective action to prevent further workplace injuries and fatalities. The problem is with the methodology in achieving this goal. For example, regarding the case with Imperial Sugar and the huge loss of life, concerned legislators were immediately outraged as was the public. Something had to get done and quickly to prevent additional occurrences of accidents of that magnitude. Quick it was, then ensuing congressional testimony began to turn into attacks on OSHA, the director of OSHA, and even the Secretary of Labor.

This is where the problem arose in drafting the Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosion and Fires Act (H.R. 5522). Emotions entered into the picture instead of a reasoned approach which should of consulted all stakeholders concerning life safety, structural integrity, mission continuity, and mitigation of fire and explosions as outlined in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards.

Jurisdictional Collaboration
Congress needs to reevaluate the stark and unyielding provisions of the pending combustible dust bill, which has all the good intentions of accident prevention and worker safety. Instead the local jurisdictional aspect with collaborative partnerships must be aligned between federal, state, and local entities in the prevention and mitigation of future combustible dust incidents.

Already it is proven the federal provision in the OSHA Grain Facility Standard does not reduce the occurrences of combustible grain dust incidents. How can it? Doesn't take much higher math to figure there are not enough OSHA inspectors to inspect all the grain facilities on a regular basis. Besides it's not up to the federal government to ensure a facility will not go off like a Chinese bottle rocket to the moon at moments notice.

An excellent example of local jurisdictional cooperation with state, local, and federal alliances is Homeland Security. Billions of dollars have gone into that program and millions more too local and state jurisdictions. Is Homeland Security working? Maybe it's too early to tell. But the resources have been spent. Isn't our nations manufacturing sector just as vital or important?

Photo Credit: OSHA

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