Today in Workplace Safety: Imperial Sugar and Kleen Energy

Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, OSHA

February 7 was a bad day for worker safety.

On February 7, 2008, 14 workers were killed and 38 were injured — many with severe burns — when the Imperial Sugar plant in Port Wentworth, Georgia exploded as a result of combustible dust accumulations.

Exactly two years later, on February 7, 2010, 6 workers were killed and at least 50 injured when the Kleen Energy power plant in Middletown, CT exploded after natural gas was used to blow debris from the plant’s pipes.

I remember both of those tragedies well. I was working in the House of Representatives when news of Imperial Sugar came across my desk, and snowed in on Superbowl Sunday during “Snowmageddon” when the Kleen Energy plant exploded.

Both of these tragedies were easily preventable. The hazards of combustible dust were well known, and massive accumulations of combustible sugar dust existed throughout the packaging building prior to the explosion.  Similarly, the hazards of using huge amounts of natural gas to blow debris from a power plant under construction were well known. Also well know was that all potential sources of ignition had to be eliminated before the blow — yet potential ignition sources from welding, electrical equipment and other practices had not been eliminated in an attempt to finish construction of the plant on schedule.

The Chemical Safety Board’s (CSB) report on the Imperial Sugar investigation can be found here, and the CSB’s full combustible dust report can be found here. The CSB’s report on Kleen Energy can be found here.

The Imperial Sugar explosion along with CSB reports eventually led to a combustible dust emphasis program at OSHA, legislation that passed the House of Representatives that would have required OSHA to issue a combustible dust standard, and eventually, regulatory activity at OSHA.  It is one of my biggest regrets that we were not able to finish that rulemaking during the Obama administration, and the Trump administration has since removed combustible dust from the regulatory agenda.

Although OSHA never took action on natural gas blows, the industry discontinued the practice following the Kleen Energy explosion.

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Posted In: Allied Approaches

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