FORMER GOVERNMENT SAFETY OFFICIAL TELLS "60 MINUTES" THAT INDUSTRY AND GOVERNMENT ARE NOT DOING ENOUGH TO STOP DEADLY DUST EXPLOSIONS - SUNDAY ON CBS
Savannah Sugar Plant Blast in February that Killed 13 Is the Latest Preventable Tragedy
At least 13 people might still be alive today if industry and the government's
Occupational Safety and Health Administration did more to stop dust explosions in America's factories, says a former government safety official. Carolyn Merritt, former head of the government's Chemical Safety Board, talks to Scott Pelley for a 60 MINUTES report on the deadly problem of combustible dust to be broadcast Sunday, June 8 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
Dust explosions occur when small particles of almost any material accumulate in a confined space like a factory and then ignite from a spark. Such an explosion killed 13 and injured dozens at the Imperial Sugar refinery outside Savannah, Ga., last February in a tragedy that was preventable, says Merritt. "If OSHA had acted and if the industry itself had paid more attention, possibly this incident would not have happened. These people should not have been killed," she tells Pelley. Two years ago, Merritt's agency urged OSHA to adopt stricter standards for combustible dust, but so far OSHA has chosen to disregard that recommendation. Watch an excerpt of Pelley's interview.
The deaths at Imperial brought to 133 the total number of people killed in combustible dust blasts in the U.S. since 1980, incidents that also injured hundreds. Merritt used to lead the federal investigations of such accidents and says there should be more regulation to prevent them, like the safety standard for grain elevators OSHA imposed 20 years ago. Grain dust explosions were common before the new safety standard went into affect. Afterwards, "fatalities were reduced by 60 percent and incidents by 42 percent," Merritt says.
Why hasn't a similar safety standard been imposed on other dust-creating manufacturing processes? The head of OSHA says he hasn't ruled it out, but he says it would be difficult to create a standard. "We are talking about tens of thousands of facilities...hundreds of types of processes - at least," says Assistant Secretary of Labor Ed Foulke. He contends that existing OSHA standards, which require workplaces to be generally clean and safe, address the problem of dust explosions. Foulke tells Pelley companies have to be more careful. "It comes down to it's the employers that are responsible for complying with the standards."
Foulke was taken to task for this assessment in a Congressional inquiry following the Imperial explosion. The inquiry led to a bi-partisan majority vote in the House to compel OSHA to impose new safety rules for combustible dust. The bill goes to the Senate soon, but the White House is threatening a veto.
It's frustrating to Merritt, who was appointed by President Bush. She says the Bush administration has been generally against regulating industry, a charge Foulke calls "totally false." Says Merritt, "They don't want industry to be pestered. In some instances, industry has to be pestered in order to comply," she tells Pelley.