OSHA’s Assistant Secretary Edwin Foulke flopped and fumbled during CBS’s 60 Minutes “Is Enough Done to Stop Explosive Dust?” which aired last night.  Correspondent Scott Pelley pressed Foulke to explain how the 50 OSHA inspectors who have been trained to identify combustible dust hazards will be able inspect the estimated 30,000 worksites with this dangerous volatile hazard.

“We’re not gonna get in every work site every year. It would be physically impossible from a monetary standpoint and on a personnel standpoint to get in every facility once a year. Or even every five years.”

Foulke said his Agency expected to inspect only about 300 of these workplaces this year.  Pelley remarked:

“If you do 300 a year, it’ll take you 100 years to inspect all those places that you’ve identified.”

With Foulke’s dumbfounded look, I seriously thought he might have asked, “is that a problem?” 

Kudos to CBS production staff David Gelber, Joel Bach, and Rachel Kun for exposing the giant hole in our nation’s supposed safety net for workplace health and safety.  Using just this one serious workplace hazard —combustible dust— workers and their family members might learn that we don’t have an effective inspection program AND we don’t have an effective regulatory system.   

Despite a recommendation from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) in 2006 for a comprehensive safety standard for dust explosions, OSHA’s Foulke won’t admit that more protective federal rules are necessary.

Foulke told 60 Minutes he hasn’t ruled out issuing a new industrial dust standard but says the issues are complex and need study. “We’re talking about tens of thousands of facilities. We’re talking about hundreds of types of processes, at least. Maybe thousands of types of processes.”

The gutsy and honest Carolyn Merritt, former head of the CSB, doesn’t buy that excuse:

“When someone says that this is all very complex, and we don’t understand it. Well, therefore, we can’t regulate it, you say what?  It’s just a delay mechanism from actually doing anything.”

Merritt added her opinion of the G.W. Bush Administration’s hands-off approach to workplace safety improvements.

“The basic disappointment has been this attitude of no new regulation. They don’t want industry to be pestered. In some instances, industry has to be pestered in order to comply.”

Indeed, and if OSHA doesn’t have a standard AND doesn’t do inspections, how is this pestering supposed to take place?  Is that giant hole in our workplace-safety safety net finally getting too large to ignore? 

Carolyn Merritt was a force to be reckoned with when she was at the CSB, and she remains so in her retirement.  I was so very pleased to see Ms. Merritt teamed up with Ms. Tammy Miser, and featured prominently in the 60 Minutes’ piece.  Tammy’s brother Shawn Boone, 33, was killed in an aluminum-dust explosion at the Hayes-Lemmerz cast aluminum automotive wheel manufacturing plant in Huntington, Indiana.  Tammy transformed her grief into a “virtual” assembly of family member victims of workplace fatalities through the organization United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities and the “Weekly Toll.”  She testified earlier this year at at House Committee hearing in support of “The Combustible Dust Explosion and Fire Prevention Act (H.R. 5522)” which would require OSHA to issue a rule to protect workers from combustible dust explosions.

Watch the 60 Minutes piece “Is Enough Done to Stop Explosive Dust?” or read the transcript (here).


Celeste Monforton, MPH is a lecturer and research associate in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health.  She volunteers service to Tammy Miser’s United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities

 

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