Behind deadly factory blast in Georgia

February 15, 2008

THE UNIDENTIFIED remains of at least six workers were recovered by emergency workers going through the still-smoldering debris after an explosion at the Dixie Crystal sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Ga. Another 44 workers were injured, many with severe burns.

The cause of the blast on February 7 is yet to be determined, but is likely the result of combustible sugar dust ignited by a spark of some kind. The explosion rocked the buildings surrounding the plant, and residents across the river in South Carolina reported feeling their homes shake.

Workers who escaped the inferno--118 were in the plant at the time--described walls vaporizing before their eyes. "I saw people come running out burnt, screaming, hollering, their skin hanging off them," Jason Perry, who rushed to the plant to find his uncle who was working that night, told the New York Times. "It was raining debris, iron, sheet metal. Everything from the boiler to the river is gone."

The plant, which opened in 1917, was owned by Texas-based Imperial Sugar, the largest processor and refiner of sugar in the U.S. and a major employer in the area.

Rescue efforts were stalled in the days after the blast when the building was flooded with eight feet of water, putting the structure in danger of collapse at any moment. The heat from the fire was so great that the sugar melted and hardened.

A firefighter told the Associated Press that his search team had to use power tools to tear down a door that was sealed shut. "As you've got sugar that's crystallizing and running down the chutes, it's like concrete," said Savannah-Chatham County police Sgt. Mike Wilson.

Georgia Fire Commissioner John Oxendine told Reuters, "I've been state fire commissioner for 14 years, and this is the worst industrial accident that we've had in that history."

THIS CALAMITY highlights the terrible, yet avoidable, dangers that exist in workplaces across the country.

According to 2006 study released by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), explosions caused by combustible dust were responsible for killing 119 people and injuring 718 others in at least 281 blasts from 1980 to 2005.

Combustible dust is found in plants that manufacture powders such as cornstarch, or workplaces where wood or metal surfaces are shaped or polished. Tiny dust particles can form clouds in enclosed places, and a spark can ignite them. The smaller the particles, the worse the explosion.

Even very small amounts of powder are potentially combustible. For instance, a 2003 explosion that destroyed a pharmaceutical plant in North Carolina, killing six employees, was caused by a dust accumulation estimated to be less than one-quarter inch deep, according to the CSB report.

"The biggest problems we have in plants is that people are not aware of the amount of dust that's in their plant," C. James Dahn, president of Safety Consulting Engineers and an expert on the topic, told AP. "I've walked into plants where dust is nearly half a foot deep, and people are saying, 'It's just dust, we don't worry about it.' They did when it blew the plant apart."

In 2003, several high-profile dust explosions led the CSB to recommend that employers follow more stringent rules. Despite the fact that combustible dust explosions can be prevented by removing fine-grain dust as it builds up, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is supposed to be a watchdog for workplace safety, has no rules requiring it.

OSHA has dust regulations for grain silos and plants that have been shown to be effective in preventing explosions, but it hasn't put requirements in place for other plants that face similarly dangerous conditions.

Since taking office, the Bush administration has chipped away at OSHA, limiting the institution of new regulations and rolling back existing ones. During the Bush years, OSHA has issued the fewest significant standards in its history,

For example, although OSHA has repeatedly identified silica dust, which can cause lung cancer, as a health hazard that warrants a new regulation, it has yet to put a new rule in place.

OSHA chief Edwin Foulke Jr., a Bush appointee, described himself as a "true Ronald Reagan Republican" who "firmly believes in limited government." Before heading OSHA, he worked for a Greenville, S.C., law firm that advises companies on how to avoid union organizing.

It is little wonder the agency stresses a "voluntary compliance strategy," which relies on industry associations and companies to police themselves. The outcome of this strategy--more death and injury on the job--was predictable.

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