Article Archive
Dust to Dust
February sugar refinery blast results in near record fines
Volume 23, No. 5

In the wake of a February 7 explosion that killed 13 workers at a sugar refinery near Savannah, GA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued citations in July proposing penalties totaling $8.7 million against a Sugarland, TX-based company and its two affiliates, the third largest fine in OSHA history.

More than $5 million of the proposed fines were for violations at the Port Wentworth, GA, refinery. OSHA added nearly $4 million related to inspections at the company's Gramercy, LA, refinery following the February explosion.

"I am outraged that this company would show a complete disregard for its employees' safety by knowingly placing them in an extremely dangerous work environment," said OSHA Assistant Secretary for Labor, Edwin G. Foulke, Jr.

Despite the explosion at Port Wentworth, the company has done little to ensure abatement of the combustible dust hazards at its other plant, he said.

"If OSHA investigators had not inspected and posted an imminent danger notice regarding areas at the second plant, the same thing could have happened again," Foulke said. That notice resulted in a temporary shut-down of the mill.

The company filed a notice that it intends to fight the citations.

OSHA inspections at both facilities found that there were large accumulations of combustible sugar dust in workrooms, on electrical motors and on other equipment. The investigation also determined that officials at the company were well aware of these conditions but took no action.

At the Gramercy refinery alone, accumulations on the workroom floor were measured as deep as 48 inches.

Officials theorize that cumulative sugar dust inside the packaging elevator of one of three silos caught fire. Speculation is that a bucket came loose from the elevator system, igniting the suspended sugar. A second explosion in the silo gallery and tunnel spread to the packaging house and adjacent building.

Aside from the fatalities, 40 workers were injured.

The citations included 108 instances of willful violations related to the combustible dust hazard. A willful violations was defined as a violation committed with plain indifference to, or intentional disregard for, employee safety and health. OSHA also issued 10 citations for other willful violations and 100 citations for serious violations.

The largest fine in OSHA history was $21.3 million issued against a major oil company after an explosion on March 23, 2005, at its Texas City, TX, refinery. That explosion killed 15 people and injured more than 170 others. The second largest fine was against a Louisiana fertilizer company in 1991 after an explosion that killed eight workers and injured 128 others.

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