ATLANTA (AP) — Federal inspections will be carried out at hundreds of plants where combustible dust is a workplace hazard, a top safety official said Monday at a sugar refinery where dust is suspected of causing a deadly explosion.
Ed Foulke Jr., head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, announced the inspections while visiting the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, where a blast on Feb. 7 killed 12 workers injured dozens more.
OSHA has not completed its investigation of that explosion but is sending letters to 30,000 companies that deal with combustible dust to discuss the dangers, Foulke said in a telephone interview.
A preliminary investigation determined the explosion was caused by airborne sugar dust in a basement area beneath the refinery's three giant storage silos, but what ignited the dust has not yet been determined.
Also Monday, Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said they will introduce a bill to force OSHA to issue new regulations governing industrial dust. Miller scheduled a hearing on the issue for March 12.
Combustible dust standards were put in effect for the grain industry after a series of explosion in the 1980s, but OSHA declined to act on a 2006 recommendation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board that similar standards be set up for other industries.
Last month, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters petitioned OSHA to take that step.
''It's great that they're down there looking at this plant in Georgia after people died and were burned to death,'' said Robyn Robbins, assistant director of the UFCW's occupational safety and health office. ''But what were they doing before this happened? And what are they going to do next?''
Foulke said Monday that more work must be done to determine whether existing standards on ventilation and factory housekeeping can be used to address existing concerns, and to determine how a standard can be crafted so it makes sense for different industries with different types of dust.
Miller and Barrow said Congress should step in because OSHA has failed to act.
''We owe it to the victims and their families to do everything we can to prevent this kind of disaster from ever happening again,'' said Barrow, of Savannah.
Associated Press writer Ben Evans in Washington contributed to this report.