Board: Combustible dust rule ‘most wanted’ safety fix

Members of a federal board voted Thursday to name a national safety standard for combustible dust as its “most wanted” priority for worker protection.

The vote by the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) doesn’t carry the weight of law. But it is designed to put pressure on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has so far failed to deliver on its promise to develop such a standard.

OSHA started the rule-making process in 2009, a little more than a year after an explosion at the Imperial Sugar refinery near Savannah injured dozens and killed 14. OSHA is set to initiate a key part of that process in November.

When suspended in the air under the right conditions, particles of such things as sugar, flour, coal, plastics, wood and even metals can ignite. A 2006 CSB report found 281 serious dust incidents in the U.S. from 1980 to 2005 that claimed 119 lives and injured 718 people.

“The board has called on OSHA a number of times over the past several years to act on this known, insidious hazard that continues to claim the lives of workers and cause enormous damage and loss of jobs. It’s critical that OSHA address the recommendations,” CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said in a news release.

CSB also voted to label as “unacceptable” OSHA’s response to seven open safety recommendations, including ones related to dust and fuel gases.

Union groups, including the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, also backed the call for national standards and criticized the many hurdles in the regulatory process have hindered OSHA's ability to craft them.

Thomas Galassi, director of enforcement programs for OSHA, said the agency “strongly agrees that the best course of action is a federal regulation to control combustible dust hazards.”

Galassi said OSHA has taken steps in the interim to protect workers, including making combustible dust a national emphasis, working to educate employers, and identifying thousands of violations at facilities that handle combustible dusts. Though a national standard is pending, he said, OSHA has used other regulatory abilities to address the threat.