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April 3, 2008 Updated: August 24, 2020

The Bush Administration’s Department of Labor in a Hurricane-Katrina-like response is visiting the Savannah, Georgia, Imperial Sugar plant today after an explosion more than three weeks ago killed 12 workers and left others critically burned.

Prior to the sugar plant explosion, OSHA ignored the recommendations of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) to issue a rule that could have reduced the possibility of the explosion here and at other sugar plants.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters filed a petition on February 20, 2008, with the U.S. Department of Labor demanding that OSHA issue an emergency standard on this risk.

The petition called upon OSHA to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard which requires immediate controls instituted by employers where combustible dust hazards exist. The petition also calls upon OSHA to put a new Permanent Standard in place for control of combustible dust hazards in general industry; inspect sugar processing plants; and implement a Special Emphasis Program on combustible dust hazards in a wide range of industries where combustible dust hazards exist.

The UFCW represents hundreds of workers in sugar plants around the country, including the Domino Sugar plant in Baltimore, Maryland. UFCW members at the Domino plant narrowly escaped harm last November after a combustible dust explosion rocked the facility. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters represents nearly 500 members who are employed at eight sugar processing facilities throughout the United States.

The explosions could have been prevented had OSHA heeded the recommendations made by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board made in November 2006. That year, the CSB conducted a major study of combustible dust hazards following three worksite catastrophic dust explosions that killed 14 workers in 2003. The CSB report noted that a quarter of the explosions that occurred between 1980 and 2005 that were identified, occurred at food industry facilities, including sugar plants.

OSHA’s Katrina-like inaction on this workplace risk follows a pattern of the agency ignoring scientific evidence and its own rule-making guidelines. By law, OSHA was supposed to respond to the CSB’s recommendations within six months.

A full copy of the petition can be downloaded here.

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