Despite the ongoing deaths, OSHA does not have specific regulations in place for the hazards of combustible dust.
Between 1980 and 2005, 281 combustible dust explosions killed 119 industrial workers and injured 718 others. And in the years that followed, similar disasters caused many more deaths; in 2008, a single sugar dust fire killed 14 workers in Georgia.
Such tragedies could have been “easily preventable” if workplaces had adopted certain engineering controls, ventilation systems and training protocols. Still, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) withdrew from establishing specific regulations for combustible dust hazards, citing resource constraints.
Instead, OSHA relied on unenforceable guidance documents and general workplace safety inspections. Meanwhile, an industry group and some states have sought to impose their own standards. But the gap in federal regulatory oversight may be due to closer scrutiny, especially as emerging technology could reduce the costs of detecting combustible dust hazards.
Almost all finely divided material can burn or explode when suspended in air under certain conditions. Even metals that do not normally ignite, such as aluminum, can become explosive in the form of dust, as can charcoal, wood, candy, spices, grains, tobacco, plastics, pesticides, etc. rubber, fiberglass and dyes.
OSHA has responded to these far-reaching dangers by inspecting facilities as part of its overall safety framework. After the sugar dust explosion in 2008, the agency expanded its national combustible dust enhancement program to inspect additional facilities in industrial sectors that experience frequent or “catastrophic” combustible dust incidents.
But even with this program, OSHA does not have the explicit authority to name a company for specific combustible dust hazards. Inspectors are limited to issuing citations under OSHA’s general “housekeeping” regulations or its “general duty clause” authority, which typically require employers to address safety hazards. at work.
As such, OSHA’s ability to push industry to reduce the risk of combustible dust explosions is of limited effectiveness. The agency has issued interpretive letters explaining how OSHA can apply existing requirements to combustible dust, but these guidance documents do not have the force of law. They cannot establish separate employer obligations to deal with such risks, as is the case with other hazardous materials, including lead. Dust explosions are the result of many factors, which must be monitored together to effectively assess the risks; for this reason, dust-targeted bonds that take all factors into account can help employers better prevent disasters.
Recognizing its limited authority to deal with the risks of combustible dust, in 2009 OSHA began work on a comprehensive combustible dust standard that could require employers to take more proactive mitigation actions. The agency issued an advisory of proposed regulations and held several stakeholder meetings. In 2015, OSHA moved the proposed standard from “long-term action” to “pre-rule stage,” indicating that a final rule should have been imminent.
But in 2017, OSHA withdrew its regulatory proposal and swept combustible dust entirely from its regulatory agenda, citing “resource constraints and other priorities.” The combustible dust standard appears to have joined two other abandoned OSHA rules (for silica dust and beryllium) as victims of the Trump administration’s broader deregulation agenda. In addition, OSHA inspections for general workplace hazards, such as combustible dust, fell by at least 20% between 2016 and 2018, even as workers continued to die from explosions. dust.
As OSHA withdrew, an industry standards body became a leader in mitigating the risk of combustible dust, as well as a template for the agency’s own guidance documents.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) published its first standard on Combustible Dust Fundamentals in 2016, then updated this standard in 2019. One of the more recent guidelines in the standard calls for installations to be performed. a step-by-step dust hazard analysis to be kept on file with the local, county or state agency that implements building codes and fire safety inspections.
Although OSHA often refers to the NFPA guidelines in its combustible dust guidelines, it cannot enforce these standards without undertaking formal regulation.
Noting this lack of enforceability, many states have applied their own standards to deal with the risk of combustible dust. For example, Georgia requires all facilities that manufacture or handle dust to register with the state’s Office of Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner. California has adopted one of the strictest regulatory frameworks in the country.
But state regulations can change faster than the dust itself. In 2018, Connecticut backtracked and removed combustible dust provisions from its safety code. And, as Georgia’s adoption of requirements only after the fatal sugar explosion of 2008 illustrates, state action on the dangers of combustible dust also tends to be reactive – initiated only after the death of many workers.
Compared to state agencies, OSHA may be in a better position to pursue more proactive standards. While the Biden administration has yet to show interest in resurrecting a combustible dust standard, legislative pressure could spur action on this issue. In 2008, the United States House of Representatives passed a Combustible Dust Bill to speed up OSHA rule development. The bill has stalled in the US Senate, but it could be revived.
And unlike ten years ago, an OSHA standard would now be reinforced by recent technological developments, which could reduce the costs necessary to implement combustible dust regulations. In 2020, researchers designed an application capable of detecting concentrations of combustible dust in the air, from images and video footage only. Current dust level detection technology requires the physical separation of dust into multiple filters for analysis, an expensive process that involves significant training.
The advent of this new technology may allow companies to monitor dust levels and comply with a new OSHA standard, if the agency adopts one.