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Are Workers Being Killed in Preventable Workplace Accidents?

In the past several years, small fires were actually common at Hoeganaes Corporation’s metal powder plant outside Nashville. By early 2011, some workers had become good at beating down flames with gloved hands or a fire extinguisher.

The company’s own product fueled the fires: Scrap metal comes into the plant and is melted, atomized and dried into a fine iron powder that is sold to makers of car parts. But often, powder leaked from equipment and settled on ledges and rafters. One worker said he could hear the popping sound of dust sparking when it touched live electricity.

In the early morning of January 31, 2011, a worker was called to check out a malfunctioning bucket elevator that moves dust through the plant. Near his feet, electrical wires lay exposed. When the machine restarted, the jolt knocked dust into the air. A spark — likely from the exposed wires — turned the dust cloud into a ball of flame that engulfed the worker. He suffered severe burns over 95 percent of his body, and lived just two more days at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s burn unit before dying.

The flash fire involved combustible dust — a little-noticed danger that has killed or injured at least 900 workers across the country during the past 30 years. The dust can be created by iron, plastic, wood, nylon fiber, coal, and even sugar and flour. Often, workers don’t know that the dust sitting on flat surfaces could, when kicked up in a cloud, create a large flash fire.

But experts, worker safety advocates and government officials have been sounding alarms for years. Since 1980, more than 450 accidents involving dust explosions or fires have killed nearly 130 workers and injured another 800-plus, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data compiled by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB). Both agencies, citing spotty reporting requirements, say these numbers are probably significant understatements.

Yet a push to issue a rule protecting workers from the danger has stalled due to bureaucratic hurdles, industry resistance, and politics. OSHA, in a statement, said it must “make difficult decisions as to how to best allocate the agency’s limited rulemaking resources.” While addressing dangers like combustible dust and dangerous substances breathed by workers are important, OSHA said, it “has placed a great deal of emphasis on broad rulemaking efforts that have the potential to result in fundamental changes [for] safety and health in the workplace.”

“It goes along for years [at workplaces] with the dust building up, building up, and everything’s fine–nobody’s harmed, so nobody thinks anything about it,” said Sandra Bennett, an official at the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which investigated the Hoeganaes accidents. “All of a sudden, one day, boom.”

In 2009, OSHA announced it was starting the process of issuing a rule to address combustible dust. But three years later, the process is still stuck in its early stages, and OSHA has given up on making significant progress this year, moving the topic to its list of “long-term actions.” In a statement, OSHA said, “Prevention of worker injuries and fatalities from combustible dust remains a priority for the agency.” But, the statement said, developing the rule is “very complex,” and “could affect a wide variety of industries and workplace conditions. As a result it has been moved to long-term action to give the agency time to develop the analyses needed to support a cost-effective rule.”

Last year was not the first time Hoeganaes had experienced a worker death from iron dust. The recent accident in particular had striking similarities to one that occurred in 1992 at the company’s plant in Riverton, NJ, said the CSB’s lead investigator, Johnnie Banks.

Twenty years later, Jeffrey Richardson remembers that accident well. It left him with third-degree burns covering 97 percent of his body. He has one ear and one hand, though it has no fingers. His body is covered with skin grown in a lab; it heals slowly and tears easily.

“They said my foot and my eyelids were the only place where I wasn’t burned,” he recalled recently. “I still to this day have a nurse come every day to dress wounds that I still have ongoing.”

As in the May 2011 accident, a hydrogen explosion shook the building, and burning dust fell from the rafters. Richardson recalls it covering him as he struggled to find an escape route. “I could hear it sizzling and cracking,” he said.

Many plants already are required to follow rules addressing combustible dust. Many experts praise the standards, and OSHA often points to them as widely recognized practices when citing violations. But two problems limit the standards’ reach: They are optional in many areas, and, where they apply, enforcement is often lax or nonexistent, and many inspectors don’t even recognize a dust problem when it does exist. Recognizing dangers that could lead to dust fires and explosions also can be a problem for companies and their insurers. In investigations of four dust explosions that killed 28 workers, insurers had missed serious dust hazards during audits in each case.

In August 2010, Hoeganaes hired a company to clean up the dust, according to a report by the state inspector examining the January 2011 accident. But, the report notes, “it was apparent that the employer was not ensuring that clean-up was maintained through good housekeeping practices between these cleanings.” Piles of dust up to four inches thick sat on equipment throughout the plant, the inspector found.

If you or someone you know suffers an injury such as third degree burns or smoke inhalation, you should call Kramer & Pollack LLP in Mineola, New York so that the personal injury attorneys in that firm can determine whether another party has legal liability for injuries suffered, and if the injured party has a strong legal case.