OSHA ComDust Standard Sorely Needed, Imperial Sugar's CEO Says

John C. Sheptor detailed his company's four-year recovery process from a devastating explosion to an AIHce audience June 20 and said their 18,000-item action plan will be finished this year.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Calling combustible dust "a silent risk that needs to be addressed," Imperial Sugar CEO John C. Sheptor gave a keynote speech June 20 at the AIHce 2012 conference that explained how the company recovered from a devastating February 2008 explosion at its Port Wentworth, Ga. refinery and also called upon OSHA to enact a comprehensive combustible dust standard.

Fourteen people died after more than 30 explosions ripped through the refinery, and dozens of employees were injured. Sheptor was in the plant and survived only because he was protected by a fire wall, he said. The company now requires all employees to wear FR apparel; the electricians who were wearing it when the explosions occurred were protected by their apparel, and the hard hats and safety shoes all employees were required to wear also protected as they should have, he said.

Sheptor said experts believe a failed bearing overheated and touched off the explosions in the plant. Today, any accumulation of more than 50 pounds of sugar outside a piece of equipment or a 1/32 inch layer or more of sugar dust triggers a shutdown of the production line and will be investigated by a committee, he said, explaining that it took time to transform the culture so employees will take action themselves when such conditions are found -- but that has been accomplished.

"I experienced firsthand the power and destructive force that a combustible dust explosion can have, and I can assure you that most of the people in this room would underestimate [that power]," he said, addressing a large ballroom with hundreds of people in the audience. "I am very pleased with our company's response to our incident," he said later. "I am relatively pleased by my industry's response. Where I am most displeased is that we still do not have a standard from Washington. . . . There needs to be a standard that educates on proper ways to manage combustible dust hazards."

How Imperial Sugar trains its employees, its communication systems at facilities, how it tracks personnel inside those facilities, what training it requires contractor personnel to have had, and many other elements of its operations and safety systems have changed since the explosion, Sheptor said. He said the company now has a Safety Above All Else policy -- safety is the first priority at all times in all circumstances, and its strongest emphasis comes from the CEO. He urged everyone in the audience to put combustible dust in a context that their executive teams can appreciate and to take appropriate preventive steps.

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