On Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted 247-165 to approve the Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosion and Fires Act (H.R. 5522), which requires OSHA to issue an interim final combustible dust standard within 90 days and a final standard within 18 months.
This legislation wouldn’t be necessary if OSHA were doing its job. Combustible dust is a serious workplace hazard; according to the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), 281 combustible dust incidents between 1980 and 2005 killed 119 workers and injured 718. In fact, the CSB recommended in 2006 that OSHA issue a new national regulatory standard designed to prevent combustible dust fires and explosions in general industry.
OSHA failed to act, though, even as more combustible dust incidents occurred. Since CSB made its recommendation, there have been 67 combustible dust explosions that injured 75 workers and killed 14, including the February sugar dust explosion at the Imperial Sugar Company refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia, which killed nine workers and injured many more. Georgia Representative John Barrow, along with House Education and Labor Committee Chair George Miller, introduced the legislation.
Although 22 Republicans voted in favor of the bill, some offered amendments that would have delayed the process. (See news stories from Occupational Hazards and Charleston’s Post and Courier for more.) Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) offered an amendment that would require OSHA to study the problem and report back on whether a new standard is needed. Representative Tim Wahlberg (R-Mich) offered a motion that would delay the new standard’s application to food grain facilities until the Secretary of Labor said that the move would not raise domestic food-production costs.
George Miller gave a stirring speech in respose to Representative Wahlberg’s motion. Brandishing a timeline of combustible dust explosions, he emphasized how many lives are at stake. He also pointed out that when it comes to food-production costs, the destruction of a facility in a combustible-dust explosion has a huge economic impact. He concluded by reminding the chamber why and he and Congressman Barrow developed the legislation:
If OSHA is not going to act, we must. In this administration, OSHA has only acted when prodded by the courts or the Congress – never on their own. Never on their own have they suggested that they were going to go out and do this – even after the recommendations of a presidentially appointed commission to look at these kinds of accidents, appointed by this president. They’ve chosen to do nothing. And it’s important to these workers, it’s important to the commerce.
John Barrow and I have put together legislation that works for the industry. We’ve consulted with the industry, we’ve sat down with the industry, we’ve sat down with OSHA. We have to oppose this motion to re-commit. In the name of the workers, in the name of their families, in the name of our nation, we owe it [them] to protect these workers. [Cheers and applause]
It’s now up to the Senate to keep this legislation advancing, and get OSHA to do the work it should have done before 14 more workers lost their lives in combustible dust explosions.