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Slim Jim Plant Blast Could Prompt New Safety Rules

Federal officials are scheduled to re-vote Thursday on urgent safety recommendations in response to a deadly explosion at a Slim Jim snack factory in North Carolina last year.

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Federal officials are scheduled to re-vote Thursday evening on urgent safety recommendations in response to a deadly explosion at a Slim Jim snack factory in North Carolina last year.

The proposal before the U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommends that national and international safety codes be changed to more strongly control gas-line purging. The suggested guidelines would require gas purges outside of a building or require an approved safety plan, such as the evacuation of nonessential personnel.

The Associated Press obtained documents in September showing that the board had quietly voted down a similar proposal from its staff, angering workplace safety advocates who had sought a swift response to the tragedy. Two board members had argued that code writers should be the ones to decide on any new written rules, not the safety board.

North Carolina later voted to enact emergency changes to its code, adopting the new safety suggestions. Current national safety codes, developed by a committee convened by the National Fire Protection Association and the American Gas Association, say gas purges "shall not be discharged into confined spaces or areas where there are sources of ignition unless precautions are taken."

John S. Bresland, the board's chairman, said Thursday that workers have considered it common procedure to purge gas lines within buildings, something he deemed a "very unsafe practice." Board investigators found similar incidents over the past several years -- explosions they did not go to investigate -- but didn't recognize the problem until they came to probe the North Carolina blast.

"Unfortunately, it took the tragedy here in Garner to get us here and to make the recommendations that we are making today," he told reporters.

The June explosion at the ConAgra Foods Inc. plant in Garner killed four people and injured dozens of others. A settlement last month between ConAgra and the state Labor Department said a contractor released a mixture of pressurized gas and air into an enclosed room while installing a natural gas-fired water heater.

ConAgra agreed to pay $106,000 for workplace safety violations.

Board members will hold a public hearing Thursday evening in Raleigh to discuss their preliminary findings from the investigation. The safety board is using the event to take testimony from outside experts about safety issues raised by blast.

Safety board staff identified similar explosions that involved the purging of gas lines, including a May 2008 incident during the construction of a San Diego hotel that injured 14, an August 2007 explosion at a hotel in Cheyenne, Wyo., that injured two, and an explosion at a Porterville, Calif., school that burned two plumbers in November 2005. They also noted another North Carolina incident --a 1997 explosion at a fitness center in Cary that injured six.

Donald Holmstrom, a CSB investigations supervisor, said the agency was also investigating whether there was a problem with putting an explosive hazard in the middle of the ConAgra building instead of on the structure's outskirts. He said even "a fairly modest" explosion would have caused 11-ton sections of the building's roof to collapse.

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