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Imperial Sugar refinery blast was preventable, agency says

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U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board member William Wright believes better housekeeping could have prevented the explosion at the Imperial Sugar plant in Port Wentworth that killed 12 workers in February.

“These tragedies are preventable,” Wright testified in a congressional hearing, noting the Imperial Sugar accident was one of a recent string of industrial dust explosions. Wright pointed out that in 2006 his agency recommended stricter standards for combustible dust, which were ignored.

Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Edwin Foulke responded, “The existence of a standard does not ensure that tragedies will be eliminated. We do not yet know whether noncompliance was a factor at Imperial Sugar.”

A Bush administration official said that existing regulations already address the hazards, and rushing to enact new ones won’t make workplaces safer.

Witnesses reported that thick layers of dust accumulated throughout the sugar plant on surfaces such as joists and pipes. Wright said his agency’s investigation revealed Imperial Sugar workers received little training on the hazard, and that Imperial was not using the National Fire Protection Association’s voluntary guidelines.

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