Kane at Osha Underground has posted an insightful, deservedly hostile response to OSHA Administrator Ed Foulke’s testimony at Tuesday’s Senate hearing on combustible dust explosions.

In response to Foulke’s insistence that “The fatalities and injuries at the Port Wentworth sugar refinery probably could have been prevented, had Imperial Sugar complied with existing OSHA standards on housekeeping and other OSHA requirements, Kane notes:

Ed’s insistence that [National Fire Protection Association] codes on explosive dust do not need to be adopted is defying the experience of the industry that OSHA regulates…Ed is clueless that a hot bearing or tramp metal in a duct system can ignite dust creating a fatal explosion.

Kane also astutely points out that NPFA standard 654, proposed by Congressman Miller’s bill as the basis for a new and comprehensive OSHA combustible dust standard, “provides all the basic fundamentals to prevent a dust explosion.”  Far more comprehensive than OSHA’s housekeeping standard (1910.22),  which calls for a “clean and orderly” workplace without a single mention of combustible dust, NPFA standard 654 specifically recommends isolation of dust-producing activities; construction of barriers to prevent dust accumulation; regular, thorough workplace cleanings which include hard-to-reach areas such as overhead ducts and pipes; and immediate removal of any dust accumulation over 1/32 of an inch. (For more on the NFPA standard, visit NFPA’s website, or read the testimony of John S. Bresland, Chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.)

Kane next points out that:

Bresland checkmated Ed on the comparison of the grain dust standard to the weak 1910.22.

Did he ever! Wow!

Foulke dismissed the notion that a new combustible dust standard is necessary, arguing that the tragedy at Imperial Sugar “would not have been prevented by the existence of another standard.” And he goes on to tout OSHA’s National Emphasis Program (NEP) on combustible dust.

Now let’s be fair here. No one is trashing the NEP.  In fact, Bresland specifically commended Foulke in his testimony for the creation of this program.  The problem, as he suggests, is that OSHA can and should go further, because history shows that when they do they save workers’ lives. Case in point? OSHA’s grain dust standard (29 CFR 1910.272).

What a PERFECT analogy. Similar problem, similar solutions, and when implemented, OSHA’s own review in 2003 found that deaths and injuries from grain dust explosions and fires went down by 60%.

It’s a little hard to argue with that, huh?

Finally (and this is my favorite part!) Kaine laments:

Ed said the only way to prevent accidents is to identify hazards in your workplace. Too bad we don’t have a safety and health program standard in [general industry].

Touché.  As a matter of fact, haven’t we had this conversation already? A conversation about requiring employers to use their expertise to develop and implement comprehensive safety and health programs for their employees?

Flashback to October 27, 1998: The Clinton OSHA administration comes up with a draft proposed safety and health program rule creating a legal obligation for employers to

set up a safety and health program to manage workplace safety and health to reduce injuries, illnesses and fatalities by systematically achieving compliance with OSHA standards and the General Duty Clause.”

The program would have required the following components:

  • Management leadership and employee participation;
  • Hazard identification and assessment;
  • Hazard prevention and control;
  • Information and training; and
  • Evaluation of program effectiveness.

Sounds like a good idea. Sounds like a VERY good idea. And at one point,  OSHA championed the cause. OSHA’s April 2000 Semi-Annual Agenda, for one, sang praises for employer-sponsored health and safety programs– touting them not only cost-effective, but as

“the most effective way of reducing job-related accidents, injuries, and illnesses.”  

OSHA posited that requiring (rather than recommending) that all employers to offer these programs had become necessary since since accident, injury and illness rates were still “unacceptably high” overall. Requiring the program, it said, was an example of “regulating smarter”:  it would prevent an estimated 580,000 to 1.3 million injuries and illnesses and 416-918 fatalities per year, with a direct cost savings for employers ranging from $7.3 to $16.5 billion per year.  (Think I’m kidding? See pages 23074-23075 of that Reg Agenda!)

But so much for “smart regulation.”

Apparently, none of that was enough to convince the Bushies that the idea warranted the force of law, because they nixed the idea entirely in August 2002.

What was their rationale? Here it is, but I warn you, it doesn’t say much:

OSHA has received feedback from participants in the Agency’s voluntary programs and from other stakeholders on the strengths and weaknesses of the existing guidelines. Although the guidelines help employers understand the basic approach to managing safety and health in the workplace, they do not sufficiently reflect the importance of employee participation or program evaluation. In addition, the Agency will continue and expand efforts to communicate the value and benefits of injury and illness prevention programs to employers. Extended outreach efforts combined with revised voluntary guidelines will encourage more widespread adoption of comprehensive and systematic injury and illness prevention programs. OSHA has received feedback from participants in the Agency’s voluntary programs and from other stakeholders on the strengths and weaknesses of the existing guidelines. Although the guidelines help employers understand the basic approach to managing safety and health in the workplace, they do not sufficiently reflect the importance of employee participation or program evaluation. In addition, the Agency will continue and expand efforts to communicate the value and benefits of injury and illness prevention programs to employers. Extended outreach efforts combined with revised voluntary guidelines will encourage more widespread adoption of comprehensive and systematic injury and illness prevention programs.

Give me a break. Translation?

“Blah, blah, blah; we don’t feel like doing this anymore.”

Much to my surprise, the  original, full text of the draft regulation still exists on OSHA’s website, preceded by this little gem of a statement:

This rule requiring employers to establish a workplace safety and health program to ensure compliance with OSHA standards was withdrawn on 8/15/2002, but the information contained therein may be useful in developing comprehensive safety and health programs.

Gee, thanks, OSHA.  How kind.  Would you like a cookie?

A requirement, not a recommendation, was sorely needed at Imperial Sugar, where 13 employees died in a massive explosion in February.  During their investigation at the plant, the Chemical Safety Board uncovered that the company had

no documentary evidence of any formal training program for educating its workers about combustible dust hazards.

And it gets worse:

Among operations-level personnel, we found no significant awareness or training about the hazards of catastrophic dust explosions.” [Emphasis added].

So tell me again: why was it a good idea to can the Safety and Health Program standard??

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Chrissy Morgan, MPH is a member of the Occupational Health and Safety Section of the American Public Health Association, and she’s bloody pissed about all these workers dying in PREVENTABLE ‘accidents’.  See more at The Weekly Toll.