Steven Waldman

Conservatives concerned about family values and liberals focused on the plight of slaughterhouse animals ought to spend a minute to consider something rarely discussed this year: the routine death of fathers, mothers and children on factory floors and other workplaces.
I was reminded of this by reading recently about the case of Imperial Sugar, maker of Dixie Crystals. The process of creating sugar produces a highly flammable dust. On February 7, some of that dust at the Imperial plant in Port Wentworth Georgia, ignited. An initial explosion sent more dust throughout nearby silos leading to a secondary explosion. Workers were blasted off their feet, or attacked by the flames that rolled in waves along the ceiling.
Thirteen people died, 40 were injured. “People had clothes burning,” said one forklift operator who witnessed the accident., “Their skin was hanging off.” [Click here for the Savannah Morning News’s excellent coverage]
Last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration concluded that plant executives knew of the hazards — including the accumulation of large amounts of dust — and didn’t fix them. They fined them $5 million for violations including 69 that were “willful” (defined as: “a violation committed with plain indifference to, or intentional disregard for, employee safety and health”) Imperial Sugar is contesting the OSHA fines, arguing that many improvements had been made and were about to be implemented.
One senior executive recently testified before Congress that he’d warned other officials and was told to back off. “I was surprised that we hadn’t killed anybody already because the plant was so dangerous,” said Graham Graham, Imperial’s vice president of operations.
But here’s perhaps the most amazing part. On March 14, five weeks after the explosion, OSHA sent inspectors to Imperial’s other sugar processing plant, in Gramercy, Louisiana — and found the same sorts of conditions. Somehow, the death of 13 people had not prompted Imperial executives to fix comparable problems at their other plant. Here’s a photo OSHA inspectors took.
osha sugar dust picture jpeg.jpg
That white stuff is combustible dust. It was so perilous that OSHA took the unusual step of posting an “imminent danger” notice “because of the high likelihood of fire and explosion due to the large amounts of combustible dust.” They issued another $3.7 million in fines for that plant.
The penalties, $8.7 million in total, were the third largest in OSHA history. Yet it represents about 1% of Imperial’s annual sales, 20% of its profit in 2007. In fact, its stock price is “on a tear” of late according to one financial analyst.
In 2006, an average of 15 people died each day in workplace accidents (a total of 5,703). Please watch Latacia Johnson-Byrnes talking about the death of her father, Earl Johnson at the Imperial plant. You want to “repair the world” or preserve families? Help keep people like Latacia from losing their fathers.

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