US: OSHA Seeks $8.7 Million Fine Against Sugar Company

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

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.

AMP Section Name:Food and Agriculture
  • 184 Labor