Ten Years After Imperial Sugar Disaster, Workers Continue to Die in Combustible Dust Explosions

A decade after a catastrophic plant explosion claimed the lives of 14 people and seriously injured dozens more at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia, deadly incidents related to combustible dust continue to threaten workers and communities throughout the United States.

2017 Saw Increase in Explosion and Deaths Related to Combustible Agricultural Dust

According to an Annual Report published by Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, there were seven explosions related to combustible agricultural dust reported in 2017, an increase of two incidents over the previous year.

Five people died in these explosions, compared to three in 2016. A dozen were injured, versus eight the prior year.

All of the fatalities occurred in connection with the May 31, 2017 explosion at a Didion Milling Inc. facility in Cambria, Wisconsin. 11 workers were also injured in that incident.

Ignition Source Unknown in Majority of Incidents

Five explosions were reported at grain elevators, while one occurred at a pet food plant and another at a grain mill.

In addition to Wisconsin, agricultural dust explosions were reported in Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Oregon and Minnesota.

In two cases, explosions were ignited by an overheated bearing and electric spark. The ignition source in the remaining incidents is not known.

Trump Administration Abandoned Proposed Regulations Intended to Prevent Plant Explosions from Combustible Dust

Though the report makes clear that combustible dust is a deadly hazard, the Trump Administration recently decided to abandon a proposed regulation that was intended to prevent these types of plant explosions.

The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) had proposed the combustible dust rule in response to the deadly Imperial Sugar refinery explosion and fire that killed 14 workers and injured 38 others – including many who sustained life-threatening burns – in 2008.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s investigation of the Imperial Sugar explosion determined that the catastrophe was “entirely preventable,” and attributed the deadly blast to the massive accumulations of combustible sugar dust throughout the refinery’s packaging building.

OSHA announced it was withdrawing the proposed combustible dust rule from its agenda last July – barely two months after the deadly Didion Milling explosion killed 5 workers in Wisconsin – “due to resource constraints and other priorities.”

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