Feds say Imperial Sugar Company’s 14 worker deaths preventable

Chemical Safety Board rules Imperial Sugar Company dust explosion that killed 14 workers and injured 36 more was entirely preventable.

The Chemical Safety Board says the Imperial Sugar Company’s Port Wentworth, Georgia chemical dust explosion was preventable.

Atlanta, GA–The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) ruled a dust explosion at the Imperial Sugar Refinery outside of Savannah, Georgia in 2008, was entirely preventable. The potential dangers of the sugar refinery explosion which resulted in a massive chemical fire that left 14 plant workers dead and another 36 injured on February 7, 2008 were known by plant managers and owners. CSB investigators conducted a 19 month long investigation into the February 2008 sugar dust explosion and fire which killed workers and left many with life threatening burns. The findings were released on September 24, 2009, with lead CSB Investigation Supervisor John Vorderbrueggen, P.E., saying, “Imperial’s management as well as the managers at the Port Wentworth refinery did not take effective actions over many years to control dust explosion hazards-even as smaller fires and explosions continued to occur at their plants and other sugar facilities around the country.”

Since 1925, the sugar industry has been well aware of the serious hazards of combustible dust explosions. The CSB investigation uncovered seemingly blatant disregards for plant workers’ health and overall safety. Company leaders continually ignored the accumulation of sugar dust on equipment and floors throughout the refining plant which poses a serious hazard of a dust explosion and/or resulting fire. Workers testified of knee deep sugar dust on certain areas of flooring from spillage and sugar dust coated refinery equipment plus dust accumulation on elevated surfaces. Internal memos, beginning in 1967, reflected the concerns of Port Wentworth managers about the possibility of a sugar dust explosion. Managers even voiced concerns an explosion could result in a chain reaction affecting multiple areas of the plant. The following well known industry events that occurred after the 1967 correspondence supported plant managers concerns:

-1988 explosion at Imperial Sugar Company plant in Sugarland, Texas
-2007 explosion at Domino Sugar plant in Baltimore, Maryland
-1960’s witnessed two sugar dust explosions

Imperial Sugar Company’s leaders failed to take corrective actions to protect workers by simply maintaining a clean work environment, following the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) dust fire and explosion preventions, and further failed to conduct fire and evacuation drills with workers. Combustible dust explosions are particularly lethal because of the inability of workers to evacuate because multiple areas of plants are usually affected in a quick series of chain reactions. CSB Chairman John Bresland slammed the sugar industry and Imperial Sugar citing, “Dust explosions can be among the deadliest of industrial hazards, particularly inside heavily occupied buildings. But these explosions are readily prevented through appropriate equipment design and maintenance and rigorous dust-cleaning programs. I call upon the sugar industry and other industries to be alert to this serious danger.”

To make matters even worse and more horrifying for the injured workers, families, and overall devastated sugar community of Port Wentworth, the CSB had released a study in 2006 that specifically outlined the hazards and dangers of combustible dust fires. The study identified 281 combustible dust fires and explosions over a 25 year period between 1980 and 2005 which killed 119 workers and injured 718. These industrial chemical accidents extensively damaged facilities and prompted the CSB to strongly recommend the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) develop a comprehensive regulatory standard for combustible dust. The CSB strongly urged OSHA, the federal agency charged with assuring safe and healthful working environments for working men and women throughout the nation, to base standards and requirements for dust explosions, fires, and hazards on the NFPA’s existing guidelines. For some reason OSHA waited to act on the CSB’s assertions and announced in April of 2009 that it would begin to develop a national standard for the industrial chemical industry, including the sugar industry, to follow certain regulations and guidelines.

The CSB is an independent regulatory agency charged with the investigation of chemical accidents whose members are appointed by the President of the United States and approved by the U.S. Senate according to their website. The Board cannot issue citations or fines and can only recommend safety practices to regulatory agencies like OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) http://www.epa.gov, plus plants, industry organizations, and labor groups. It is the social responsibility of corporations, refineries, plants, industries, and federal regulatory agencies to accept and enact the CSB’s recommendations. Clearly, in the presence of these findings, by the CSB, there is a major failure present throughout all organizations and companies involved. Some 3 years later OSHA decided it would commence the development of industry requirements and standards in the prevention of chemical dust explosions. The people of Port Wentworth, the 14 dead workers, and 36 injured, from the February 2008 sugar plant explosion, probably wish OSHA had taken action back in 2006 or even in 2007. Imperial Sugar and the overall sugar industry’s blindness seems to have been going on for decades. How many lives and injuries could have been prevented through simple education and information about a clean and safe working environment and using the proper filtration and safety equipment in plants?

Social responsibility legal news reporter Heather L. Ryan.

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