Contact l Sitemap

home industries issues reasearch weblog press

Home  » Industries » Food and Agriculture

US: OSHA Seeks $8.7 Million Fine Against Sugar Company

by SHAILA DEWANThe New York Times
July 26th, 2008

ATLANTA — Imperial Sugar, the owner of a refinery near Savannah where 13 workers died in a sugar dust explosion in February, knew of safety hazards at the plant as early as 2002 but did nothing, and should pay more than $8.7 million for safety violations, the head of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Friday.

Kurt Petermeyer, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration official, on Friday outlined a report on the Feb. 7 blast.

The proposed penalty is the third-largest in OSHA’s history. Imperial Sugar will contest the findings, the company announced Friday.

At a news conference in Savannah, Edwin G. Foulke Jr., the OSHA chief, said, “The investigation concluded that this catastrophic incident could have been prevented if Imperial Sugar had complied with existing OSHA safety and health standards.”

The company’s senior management was fully aware of the combustible dust hazards, Mr. Foulke said, and did not take any appropriate action to eliminate them.

The fire, which burned for a week, started when sugar dust, which is highly combustible, was ignited in the plant by a large bucket that broke loose in a storage silo and struck a metal siding, causing a spark, according to OSHA’s investigation. Even when plants are regularly cleaned, dust can build up on ledges, pipes and other hard-to-reach places. The fire renewed calls for OSHA to issue regulations specifically designed to prevent combustible dust explosions, which can occur in many industries.

In addition to the fatalities, the fire injured 40 people, three of whom are still in a hospital burn unit, and shocked the small community of Port Wentworth, Ga., where it seemed that almost every family had some connection to the 91-year-old sugar plant. Imperial Sugar won praise when it promised to rebuild the plant and continue to pay workers.

The company has written that before the Feb. 7 explosion, “There was an insufficient understanding of the hazards of combustible dusts both within the sugar industry and within the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”

But Mr. Foulke said that even after the explosion, company officials had not acted to alleviate similar conditions at its plant in Gramercy, La., despite a warning from OSHA. An inspection of that plant five weeks after the Georgia fire found sugar dust four feet thick in some spots, he said, prompting OSHA to issue an emergency order closing the plant, an action the agency characterized in a news release as “extremely rare.”

“I am convinced that our actions prevented a second terrible accident at the Gramercy facility,” Mr. Foulke said.

The proposed penalties include more than $5 million for violations at the Port Wentworth plant, with 120 violations, and $3.7 million at the Gramercy plant, with 91. The violations included failure to clean up dust, the use of spark-producing electrical equipment, and faulty ventilation and dust collection systems.

John Sheptor, the chief executive of Imperial Sugar, issued a statement that read in part: “We believe that the facts do not merit the allegations made. As we go forward, we will continue to focus on the safety of our employees and our contractors.”

Eric Frumin, the health and safety coordinator for the labor union federation Change to Win, said the fines could have been much higher if OSHA had regulations for combustible dust. The agency found 118 “egregious” violations, a category in which the agency counts each instance in which a violation occurs.

But per-instance violations can be cited only where the agency has specific standards. In this case, ventilation and dust collection issues fell under the agency’s “general duty” clause, which allows it to cite employers for unsafe practices not specifically addressed in the regulations. So while there were 44 violations issued for spark-producing electrical equipment, which is regulated, under the general duty clause there were only two, one at each plant, for faulty ventilation and two for failing to maintain dust collection systems.

“It’s basically an admission that their standards have gaps,” Mr. Frumin said.

The federal Chemical Safety Board called on OSHA to issue dust standards in 2006, after a series of fatal events. After the Port Wentworth fire, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would require OSHA to issue dust-related rules based on recommendations from the National Fire Prevention Association.

Next week, Imperial Sugar representatives are expected to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, which is considering a similar bill. According to a copy of the company’s planned testimony, Imperial Sugar welcomes dust regulation.

“It is our view that a clear standard would assist employers in understanding the hazards of combustible dust and the means to reduce or prevent such hazard,” the testimony says.

Graham H. Graham, who joined Imperial Sugar as vice president for operations last November, is expected to testify that he identified serious safety concerns before the February explosion.

The company’s testimony quotes from documents written by Mr. Graham in January indicating that he had seen significant improvement at the two plants.

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.