Washington, D.C. – Leading worker organizations today called on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an emergency standard on combustible dust. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Labor demanding that OSHA follow the 2006 recommendations of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB). Additional labor organizations representing workers at risk are also supporting the petition which was filed in reaction to a workplace explosion at a sugar refinery in Georgia on February 7.
The explosion at the Imperial Sugar plant near Savannah, Georgia, resulted in the deaths of nine workers. Scores of workers were also injured in the blast, and one worker is still missing. Reports indicate that combustible dust may be implicated in this explosion, as has been the case in previous food plant explosions.
With the goal of protecting workers from combustible dust explosions and resulting fires, the UFCW and International Brotherhood of Teamsters petition calls 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 Bush Administration’s OSHA ignored the 2006 recommendation from the CSB to issue a rule that would have reduced the possibility of the explosion in Georgia and other combustible dust explosions. That year, the CSB conducted a major study of combustible dust hazards following three worksite dust explosions that killed 14 workers in 2003. The CSB report noted that a quarter of the explosions between 1980 and 2005 occurred at food industry facilities, including sugar plants.
OSHA’s 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.
In 1987, OSHA issued the Grain Handling Facilities Standard as the result of grain dust explosions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This standard has effectively reduced the number and severity of combustible grain dust explosions in the grain handling industry. However, the Grain Handling Facilities Standard stopped short of regulating combustible dust in industries outside of the grain industry.
The UFCW and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters join Representatives George Miller and Lynne Woolsey in the call for immediate OSHA inspections of all sugar-producing facilities.