On February 8, 2008, a sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, GA (known as the Dixie Crystals plant) exploded, killing at least four and seriously wounding many more. The cause of the explosion is not established yet but is thought to have been sugar dust.
In sugar plants, grain silos and food processing plants, fine-grain dust needs to be removed before it builds up too much in the air. Sugar dust is very combustible, so that a spark or static electricity can cause it to explode.
In a special 2006 safety report, The U.S. Chemical Safety Board had noted that OSHA had no comprehensive regulation to prevent such explosions. It recommended that OSHA issue an industrial standard for combustible dust. But OSHA did not do that. It began an inspection program instead, to see that work sites complied with federal existing regulations. The Port Wentworth site had not been inspected yet.
In a 2000 inspection, done in response to a complaint, no violations were found. In October 2007, the plant was cited for two violations, neither involving sugar dust. Now the Chemical Safety Board is planning to investigate the plant.
The Dixie Crystals plant was opened in 1917 and is the main employer for the town. It is owned by Imperial Sugar, based in Texas.
Perhaps it was employer negligence. Perhaps not. There was no sugar dust standard to comply with. Perhaps OSHA had dragged its feet too much. Future investigation will hopefully reveal whether anything could have been done to prevent this explosion. Meanwhile, attempts to find more bodies were abandoned over the weekend because of the instability of what remains of the refinery. Over 30 employees were rushed to hospitals and many are in serious or critical condition.