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Imperial Sugar CEO: OSHA Ignores Dust Hazards

'I think the facts will show there was a poor understanding of the hazards of combustible dust throughout the industry, as well as within OSHA itself,' said John Sheptor.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The head of a sugar company blamed for a Georgia refinery explosion that killed 13 workers in February sought to shift fault back to the government Monday by calling federal guidance on industrial dust accidents "woefully inadequate."

Siding with Democrats who are pushing new safety regulations, he said the manufacturing industry needs clear new standards for addressing the hazard -- a move that the Bush administration and industry groups generally have opposed.

"I think the facts will show there was a poor understanding of the hazards of combustible dust throughout the industry, as well as within OSHA itself," John Sheptor, CEO of Texas-based Imperial Sugar, said in a telephone interview in advance of a Senate hearing on the issue Tuesday. "They have ignored combustible dust."

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration last week proposed nearly $9 million in fines against Imperial over what it called willful and egregious violations that allowed sugar dust to accumulate to dangerously high levels at two plants. OSHA said the dust at the Port Wentworth, Ga., refinery was probably ignited when a large bucket used to haul sugar in a silo elevator broke loose and struck the metal siding, causing a spark.

OSHA chief Edwin Foulke emphasized that the accident could have been avoided if the company had followed existing safety and health standards. That finding is consistent with OSHA's previous position that new dust regulations aren't necessarily needed because existing rules for maintenance and housekeeping already cover the hazard.

But critics say OSHA is dragging its feet under pressure from industry, even as dust accidents have become increasingly deadly.

The independent U.S. Chemical Safety Board says the Georgia accident fits a widely understood pattern and was preventable. In a 2006 study, it found that 281 industrial dust fires and explosions between 1980 and 2005 caused 119 deaths and more than 718 injuries.

The House has passed legislation that would force OSHA to set new regulations based on existing voluntary standards.

The issue is now pending in the Senate, where Republicans have expressed skepticism about rushing to judgment on new regulations -- particularly if Imperial was flouting existing rules.

"We should take the appropriate action to make sure it doesn't happen again. Sometimes that's regulation, but sometimes it's a very severe penalty to get the attention of an industry," said Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, the lead Republican on the Senate subcommittee holding Tuesday's hearing.

Sheptor, who the subcommittee said declined an invitation to testify, said workers generally are unaware of the safety risks from dust. He noted that a 30-hour OSHA hazard awareness course that his employees take lacks any mention of dust and that its informal guidance is "woefully inadequate" and "unclear."

"I really don't see a downside to having a comprehensive, specific standard on combustible dust," he said. "I'm not sure I follow the arguments against it, and I don't understand why OSHA would be against it."

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