Imperial Sugar's Operations VP Had Port Wentworth Manager Fired

The vice president of operations for Imperial Sugar, Graham H. Graham, a Scotsman with extensive experience in manufacturing operations, told a U.S. Senate panel this morning that he grimly warned the company's CEO and the managers at its Port Wentworth, Ga., and Gramercy, La., sugar refineries that their plants were riddled with safety hazards. Graham said he listed about 400 safety hazards that he had found during five-day walk-throughs of the plants and warned the company's CEO, John Sheptor, before the Feb. 7,2008, explosion that destroyed part of the Port Wentworth facility, prompting OSHA investigations that resulted in $8.8 million in fines against Imperial Sugar last Friday.

OSHA chief Edwin Foulke Jr., also testified today before the U.S. Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety. During the two-hour hearing on Capitol Hill, Foulke said OSHA already has sufficient standards in place but also said after it has completed inspecting all sugar refineries in the country through its ongoing National Emphasis Program, which will be done by the end of this year, the agency may decide to pursue a combustible dust standard.

Graham's testimony was riveting, although one Georgia senator, Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., told Graham his sincerity is doubtful because Graham still works for Imperial Sugar. Graham responded that he continues to work there so he can bring about the safe, clean working environment the company's workers, and the sugar industry's workers, deserve.

"It was, without a doubt, the dirtiest, most dangerous manufacturing plant that I had ever entered," Graham said, describing his impression of Port Wentworth when he toured it in December 2007. "A combustible environment certainly existed." He said sugar dust was ankle-, knee-, and waist-deep in places, fire hoses were rotting, fire extinguishers had not been checked as required, and employees could not recall the last time they had participated in a fire drill. "I found the same problems" at the Gramercy refinery, he added.

He said he recommended that the Port Wentworth plant manager be fired, which was done. Graham also said he directed managers to comb the plants and list all safety hazards they found and to address the housekeeping problems. Improvements were being made when the explosion occurred, and while things were better, many problems remained, he said. But Sheptor also told Graham to make a "peace offering" to the plants' management for upsetting them, Graham testified.

Graham said at a January 2008 meeting he held with about 18 Port Wentworth managers, he warned them that some of them might soon be going to the morgue, rather than home, because their plant was so dangerous. "I don't think it was possible in only eight weeks to solve all of these problems," he said.

Most of the hearing concerned the need for an OSHA combustible dust standard. Foulke, who said OSHA cited Imperial for violating 60 OSHA standards, said a combustible dust standard would take years and be hard to write because the standard would have to account for each substance and each industry. An NFPA lawyer testified, however, that current NFPA standards sufficiently address the combustion hazards of all substances of concern, including sugar dust.

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