More than 100 workers were on an evening shift at the Imperial Sugar Company outside Savannah, Georgia, when an explosion rocked the refinery. The lights went out, the ceilings collapsed; one witness described workers staggering, their clothing on fire, skin hanging from their bodies. Eight died in the February 7 blast, and another five, with burns extending into their muscles or organs, have died in an Augusta burn unit in the weeks since. Those who survive will likely end up, in the words of one federal official, “disabled and disfigured, facing a lifetime of struggle and pain.”
The explosion was caused by a layer of sugar dust that had been allowed to accumulate under two silos at the plant, one of the town’s largest employers–dust so fine that exposure to oxygen was enough to set it off.
The day after the blast, CEO John Sheptor expressed his “grief and…sorrow” to a gathering of family members of the injured and the dead. He also said he had no idea when the plant was last inspected.
Tammy Miser watched the story unfold from her home in Lexington, Kentucky, with mounting anger. Her brother Shawn died in a similar dust explosion five years ago, at a Hayes-Lemmerz wheel plant in Indiana. She drove for hours to the burn unit in Fort Wayne, where she was able to identify her brother only by the remnants of his eyebrows. Since then, she’s become a sort of self-appointed rememberer, combing the Internet for news stories of workplace fatalities, which she compiles for her blog, Weekly Toll, and serving as both counselor and organizer for families who find themselves at bedsides like Shawn’s.
Weekly Toll narrates a world occupied by falling beams, falling buildings and falling cranes. On its pages, forklifts and trackhoes tip over like toddlers; construction workers careen from ladders and scaffolds. Trenches collapse, suffocating ditch diggers; social workers and psychologists are stabbed by angry patients; night managers of restaurants and video stores and pawn shops are shot like they’re in season. And dust explodes at industrial plants.
In 2003, the year Shawn died, a wave of these explosions killed more than a dozen workers, sparking an investigation by the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, or CSB, a federal agency. The CSB study, released in November 2006, documented 281 combustible dust explosions at workplaces between 1980 and 2005 that killed 119 workers and injured 718 more–including several at sugar plants. (An independent study has since revised these numbers upward.) A key finding of the CSB study was that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)–which, unlike the CSB, has enforcement power–had never established an enforceable standard regarding the risks of combustible dust. Calling these explosions devastating and preventable, the board recommended that OSHA immediately take steps to issue such a standard.
But during the Bush years, OSHA has more or less suspended its rule-making functions, relying instead on a system of voluntary industry “alliances,” which the agency’s top officials like to call “highly effective.” The only two significant new rules OSHA has issued during the Bush years were forced by union lawsuits. Several rules in the regulatory pipeline under Clinton, dealing with everything from toxic chemicals to hazardous equipment, were withdrawn. Two years ago, Bush appointed a new head of OSHA, Edwin Foulke, who came to the job straight from a partnership at Jackson Lewis, a leading union-busting law firm, where he’d been a vocal opponent of enforceable regulations. Shortly after starting his new job, he drew fire for delivering a speech, “Adults Do the Darndest Things,” that deployed images of men working near live power lines or with improper scaffolding for laughs.