House Committee on Education and Labor
U.S. House of Representatives

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon
Ranking Member

Fiscally responsible reforms for students, workers and retirees.



Floor Statement

April 30, 2008

McKeon Statement on H.R. 5522, the Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosion and Fire Act of 2008

Thank you Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition to the bill at this time and in this form, and I yield myself such time as I may consume. 

Consideration of this bill is a somber occurrence.  It reminds us that less than three months ago, workers at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia lost their lives to a tragic workplace accident.  Even today, many others remain injured. 

As with any workplace accident of this magnitude, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, was dispatched to the scene to investigate what went wrong.  Preliminary reports indicate that the explosion was linked to combustible dust, a known hazard for which at least 17 OSHA standards currently apply. 

OSHA has six months to complete its investigation, a timeframe that I think is appropriate for an inquiry of this seriousness.  I expect that investigation to provide a thorough, candid examination of exactly what went wrong so that steps can be taken to prevent such an accident in the future. 

Among the first questions OSHA needs to answer is whether existing safety guidelines were followed at the Imperial refinery.  This question is fundamental – it will tell us whether the cause of this accident was a lack of sufficient safety standards, or a failure to follow the standards that exist. 

The bill before us today presumes that current safety standards were insufficient.  But the truth is, we don’t yet know whether that is the case.  Less than three months after the accident, OSHA has not even had an opportunity to complete its investigation.  We cannot possibly provide effective new safety standards when we don’t know which standards, if any, were lacking. 

I understand why we’re here today.  Like Chairman Miller, Representatives Barrow and Kingston who represent the refinery and the surrounding areas, and all members of this body, I grieve for the workers who lost their lives.  But making an end-run around the proven process for establishing workplace safety guidelines is the wrong answer at the wrong time.  

The bill before us proposes a highly proscriptive regulatory mandate in an excruciatingly compressed timeframe.  More concerning still, OSHA – the agency that would be responsible for implementing these new requirements – does not believe this bill will produce the most effective safety measures. 

Of course, this is not to say that we should do nothing in the face of such an accident.  To the contrary, I believe OSHA has a responsibility to complete a thorough, aggressive investigation of the accident at the Imperial Sugar refinery to determine its causes and consider whether additional regulatory guidance is needed.  If it becomes clear that existing standards are ineffective, OSHA should move forward with a robust regulatory process that provides clearer, more effective guidance on combustible dust. 

I want to be clear on this point – this bill, at this time and in this form, is not the only opportunity to strengthen safety standards for combustible dust.  OSHA itself has not ruled out additional regulations if it becomes clear that the 17 existing standards that apply to workplaces with combustible dust hazards are not effective or clear enough to protect workers.

The danger of combustible dust in the workplace is a serious concern, and I am committed to appropriate and effective safety measures.  That’s why we plan to offer an alternative proposal today that calls for a more comprehensive approach that would include stakeholder input and expertise in any regulatory action that may be needed.   

We had hoped to see another amendment made in order, as proposed by Representative Kingston.  Because of the compressed timetable in the bill, OSHA will not have to take into account economic feasibility of the standard.  Mr. Kingston’s amendment would have simply asked that a study on the job losses resulting from the standard be reported to Congress.  Surely it would not have been too much to ask whether Congress was exacerbating job losses in an already weakening economy, but unfortunately, that amendment was not made in order. 

Still, I continue to believe we can work together, in good faith, to protect worker safety without undermining the proven route to developing effective, enforceable safety protections.   

I reserve the balance of my time.