Safety blog coverage of the sugar refinery explosion: frustration with OSHA

February 11th, 2008 by Julie Ferguson

We sorely miss Jordan Barab‘s participation in the safety blogosphere – he was a tireless crusader for workplace safety. Whenever a work tragedy occurred, such as last week’s Imperial Sugar Refinery explosion that claimed the lives of 6 workers, we could always count on Jordan to offer details and expertise on the matter that couldn’t be found elsewhere. So we have been pleased to note the emergence of a few new blogs that have stepped up to the plate.
OSHA Underground provides both knowledge of OSHA and technical expertise about a variety of work safety issues. It’s quite obviously the blog of a frustrated insider, KANE, who is vocal about diminishing OSHA resources and lack of agency leadership at the top. On Friday, KANE blogged the refinery explosion, noting that the Chemical Board had previously identified explosive dust hazards as a safety issue that needed to be addressed by OSHA. KANE also posted a list of OSHA’s comprehensive refinery inspections since March 2007, and a letter from Congressman Miller to Elaine Chao calling OSHA to task for not having enacted a standard to prevent combustible dust explosions, as recommended by the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) in November 2006. Miller notes that the CSB report identified 281 combustible dust incidents between 1980 and 2005 that killed 119 workers and injured 718.
The Pump Handle, another blog that is addressing work safety issues, also weighs in on the Imperial Refinery explosion, noting that this is the second catastrophic industrial explosion involving multiple fatalities in two months. In his post, Francis Hamilton Rammazzocchi runs through the frustrating history of the Chemical Board’s recommendations to OSHA that might have prevented such tragedies: The [Chemical] Board found that “Reactive incidents are a significant chemical safety problem,” but that OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard “has significant gaps in coverage of reactive hazards.” The Board therefore unanimously recommended that OSHA “Amend the Process Safety Management (PSM) Standard, 29 CFR 1910.119, to achieve more comprehensive control of reactive hazards that could have catastrophic consequences.”
And the response since this prescient recommendation?

More than five years after the CSB’s recommendation was issued, OSHA has refused to act. In typical Bush Administration fashion, instead of revising the PSM regulation, OSHA established an “Alliance” of chemical industry associations and published a reactive chemical webpage. The Alliance involved setting up booths at chemical industry conferences, occasional presentations about Alliance activities, and two actual training workshops that trained a total of 36 students. In 2004, the CSB evaluated OSHA’s response and judged it “unacceptable,” and the Alliance was terminated in March 2007. Rammazzocchi also faults the media for its pallid coverage and their lack of any call for accountability. He notes that despite being “hip deep in an election year,” candidates haven’t been questioned in any public forums about their stance on the regulatory agencies such as OSHA and EPA and whether they will call for the agencies do the jobs that they were intended to do.
We’ve taken OSHA to task more than once for its recent hands-off attitude to safety regulations and enforcement. While no one likes bureaucracy, self regulation by industry insiders, or what some refer to as “the foxes guarding the hen-house” approach, clearly isn’t sufficient to ensure worker – and public – safety.

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