Safety and OSHA News

No criminal charges in Imperial Sugar explosion that killed 14 workers

A U.S. Attorney has said there’s insufficient evidence to seek criminal charges against Imperial Sugar or its executives in connection with the 2008 explosion that killed 14 workers and hospitalized 40 more. The case shows just how difficult it is to bring these sort of charges under current U.S. laws.

Edward Tarver, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, said there wasn’t enough evidence of intentional disregard or plain indifference to the requirements of OSHA’s general housekeeping standards to charge Imperial Sugar with a criminal violation.

Tarver said the lack of federal criminal laws “specifically addressed to the safety of workers within the sugar industry at the time of the Imperial Sugar explosion” also factored into his decision.

Also, there are no felony provisions under the statute that covers OSHA housekeeping offenses. Maximum charges would be misdemeanors, with fines topping out at $500,000.

The Department of Labor requested Tarver’s office consider criminal prosecution.

OSHA issued 124 safety citations against Imperial, 118 of them categorized as willful, which means the company acted with “plain indifference to, or intentional disregard for, employee safety and health.” The original OSHA fines totaled $8.77 million, but the company settled with the federal agency for $6 million, almost a one-third reduction.

So despite OSHA’s finding of plain indifference or intentional disregard, the U.S. Attorney’s office couldn’t come to the same conclusion.

But in interviews conducted by OSHA, plant workers said they were never trained on how to escape during an emergency, according to The Savannah Morning News.

Investigations by OSHA, the U.S. Chemical Safety board and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives all reached similar conclusions: Sugar dust, suspended in the air, was the fuel for the explosion, which could have been prevented.

Imperial still faces civil lawsuits.

The company was purchased in 2012 by Switzerland-based agribusiness giant Louis Drewfus Commodities.

Again this year, a bill has been introduced in Congress to require OSHA to issue an interim standard within a year based on the voluntary combustible dust standard set by the National Fire Protection Association.

OSHA issued a rule in 1987 on the handling of grain dust. The rule has been credited with reducing deaths and injuries without imposing a devastating economic burden on the grain industry.

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