When a fiery blast rocked the Imperial Sugar refinery on the banks of the Savannah River four years ago this week, killing 14 workers and injuring dozens more, people were horrified, saddened and then outraged by an accident later deemed preventable.
Many committed themselves in the years that followed that unforgettable night to two words:
So what went wrong?
Why doesn’t the nation have new safety rules that could prevent accidents caused by combustible dust in workplaces?
Why are Washington politicians — with the notable exception of U.S. Rep. John Barrow, D-Savannah — treating this issue like an outbreak of political E. coli?
Does anyone outside Southeast Georgia, where many families will carry the hurt from this catastrophe for a long time, really care?
Let’s answer the last question first: Probably not.
That’s harsh. But sadly, it’s reality. Most people who didn’t lose loved ones or co-workers or who aren’t living with horribly scarred skin have other things on their minds.
Four years doesn’t sound like a long time. But the public’s attention span gets shorter by the nanosecond. What attracts eyeballs one moment causes eyelids to droop the next.
The nation’s finest scientists with the U,S. Chemical Safety Board still care passionately. They have been studying combustible dust since a series of deadly fires and explosions in 2003.
In 2006 — two years before the Imperial Sugar blast — they released a report that found 281 dust explosions and fires in the U.S. between 1980 and 2005. They noted that 119 workers were killed and 718 were injured. Given these clear and present dangers, they recommended then that the Occupational Health and Safety Administration develop regulations for controlling dust hazards.
So how are the scientists faring, even after the 14 additional Imperial Sugar deaths in 2008 and five more workers killed last year at a Tennessee metal powers plant?
Not so well. In late January, OSHA published its twice-annual regulatory agenda. Here’s the agency’s outlook on combustible dust: “Next action undetermined.”
“We really don’t know why OSHA is doing this,” Rafael Moure-Eraso told the Associated Press last week.
Who is Moure-Eraso and why is he flummoxed? He’s the chairman of the Chemical Safety Board. He’s one of five board members who are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, then serve five-year terms. He and his peers investigate accidents, determine root causes and make recommendations.
Moure-Eraso has two master’s degrees and a doctorate. But in one way, he’s as dense as a brick.
Put simply, most lawmakers and members of the Obama administration don’t give a rip about pushing forward with dust rules right now. Why? Because the public doesn’t seem to give a rip either. Besides, just look at the nifty photographs of Imperial Sugar’s new refinery, built with insurance money. The images suggest a place that’s so clean you could almost lick Dixie Crystals off the floor.
So maybe those pesky rules aren’t needed, right? Maybe. At least not until another plant explodes.
Moure-Eraso may know beans about politics. But he understands one thing that the president and 99 percent of all congressmen don’t: “We do know that workers keep dying,” he told the AP.
Just not often enough.
Tom Barton is the editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News.
For the injured worker and the Workers CompenstionHelpline is ready to help you if you have been injured due to poor afety at the workplace or a refinery in Georgia
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