Personal Injury

Sugar company to pay $6 million in penalties after deadly plant blast

A Georgia sugar company will pay more than $6 million in penalties for the February 2008 explosion at its Port Wentworth, Georgia, plant and subsequent health and safety violations discovered at the company’s other facility in Gramercy, Louisiana. The explosion at Imperial Sugar Co. claimed the lives of 14 workers and seriously injured dozens of others.

The company reached an agreement with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after months of litigation following the accident. Imperial Sugar will pay $4,050,000 in penalties for 124 violations found at its Port Wentworth plant after the explosion, plus an additional $2 million for the 97 violations found in March 2008 after an inspection of the other facility in Gramercy. OSHA had originally proposed fines of $8.7 million in July 2008. OSHA’s citations alleged that the company failed to properly address combustible dust hazards, among many other safety and health hazards.

Imperial Sugar also agrees that it will correct any remaining deficiencies and violations at both of its plants according to a set schedule. Preventative maintenance and housekeeping programs have been established, and Imperial Sugar will identify and map locations where combustible dust may be present at its plants. The company also will conduct regular internal safety inspections and employee training, and hire an independent expert at each plant to ensure that there are adequate avenues of communication on worker safety and health issues within the company.

Imperial Sugar also agreed to keep a full-time certified safety professional on staff at the Georgia plant and retain outside consultants to conduct safety audits for a three-year period.

According to OSHA, dust created in an industrial environment is extremely unstable and dangerous if not treated properly. Any combustible material and some materials normally considered noncombustible can burn rapidly when in a finely divided form. If such a dust is suspended in air in the right concentration, it can become explosive. The force from such an explosion can cause employee deaths, injuries, and destruction of entire buildings. Combustible dust incidents have killed scores of U.S. workers and injured hundreds over the past few decades. Sugar is one of the substances known to be highly combustible in dust form and Imperial should have taken the proper measures to dispel the dust, OSHA asserted.

Other materials that may form combustible dust include metals (such as aluminum and magnesium), wood, coal, plastics, paper, soap, dried blood, and certain textiles. According to OSHA, industries that generally run a high risk of a combustible dust explosion include food processing (candy, sugar, spice, starch, flour, feed), grain, tobacco, plastics, wood, paper, pulp, rubber, furniture, textiles, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, dyes, coal, metals (aluminum, chromium, iron, magnesium, and zinc), and fossil fuel power generation.