Labor Department Plans New Regulations For Diacetyl, Industrial Dust

The Labor Department is finally making plans to suggest new rules aimed both at limiting exposure to the chemical <"">diacetyl and preventing industrial dust accidents, the Associated Press (AP) is reporting. Diacetyl is the chemical that gives food—specifically, microwave popcorn—a buttery flavor and which has been linked to severe lung disease. In February 2008, an explosion at an Imperial Sugar Company plant in Georgia that left many dead and injured was blamed on highly combustible industrial dust.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis is expected to announce details about the plan today and is following up on a promise to increase OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) enforcement and develop safety rules where the Bush administration failed, said the AP. Solis is credited, said the AP, for working to stop an eleventh-hour Bush Administration move to delay setting diacetyl exposure limits for workers.

OSHA is the federal agency responsible for setting and enforcing workplace safety standards and has been criticized for not fully protecting workers and inspecting work sites.

In February, the Department of Labor directed OSHA to speed up establishment of new rules to protect workers in the snack and flavorings industry from the threat of Popcorn Workers Lung, a potentially life threatening ailment, for which the only cure is a lung transplant. Also known as bronchiolitis obliterans, the disease has been linked to diacetyl. In 2003 and 2004, the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health found a link between diacetyl and the development of Popcorn Workers Lung among hundreds of workers at six Midwestern popcorn factories. In April 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that workers at food flavoring factories, as well as popcorn plants, were at risk for the disease.

Since the link between the disease and diacetyl has been established, hundreds of food industry workers have filed Popcorn Workers Lung lawsuits. In fact, one victim of Popcorn Workers Lung, and his wife, were recently awarded $7.5 million for his injuries. Unfortunately, the victim died from the illness one day before the verdict was rendered. According to an earlier AP piece, over $20 million has been awarded to victims of the disease.

Industrial dust can be extremely combustible. The Imperial Sugar explosion occurred in a silo where refined sugar was stored before being packaged. OSHA classifies plants where a lot of sugar dust is present as “hazardous locations,” the same classification as coal preparation plants and producers of plastics, medicines, and fireworks. Of note, when sugar dust is aerosolized, it can become ionically charged and ignite from just a bit of static electricity.

As we reported at the time, the fatal Imperial Sugar Company plant explosion was not the first-such incident at the Port Wentworth, Georgia refinery that year. According to investigators, just a few weeks prior to the massive plant explosion, a smaller blast occurred when dust became trapped in a piece of safety equipment. No injuries or damage where caused by that small blast, however, 13 people where killed and dozens injured—some critically—by the explosion, which took one week to extinguish.

Following a series of explosions in the 1980s, combustible dust standards were established for the grain industry; however OSHA has not yet implemented similar standards in other industries, said the AP, even though the U.S. Chemical Safety Board made a recommendation to do so in 2006.

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