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Preventable: Quiet, deadly dust

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginians are accustomed to hearing about coal dust. Accumulated in underground mine chambers and tunnels, it is deadly, explosive fuel in case of fire or spark. Younger miners have developed black lung in recent decades because mine operators ignore or defeat safety requirements intended to keep air cleaner. But other kinds of workplace dust can be just as deadly, and neglected.

This month is the second anniversary of the deaths of three workers in a different setting. Jeffrey Scott Fish, James Eugene Fish and Steven Swain died in December 2010 from an explosion and fire at AL Solutions, a small metals recycling plant in New Cumberland.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigated, and concluded that this tragedy was much like many other combustible dust tragedies it had probed.

"It fits into the broader problem with the lack of dust regulation in the United States," the board's managing director Daniel Horowitz told the Gazette.

The Chemical Safety Board has already made recommendations to the federal government intended to save lives. The board said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should issue a safety standard for general industry to prevent dust fires and explosions. The rule should be based on the National Fire Protection Association's standards and cover hazard assessment, engineering controls, housekeeping, building design, explosion protection, operating procedures and worker training.

Unfortunately for the nation's workers, the Obama Administration has delayed action on developing such rules. The U.S. Department of Labor first appeared to make dust safety standards a priority, but has delayed the necessary steps to make them happen.

It can be easy to overlook preventable patterns when deaths and injuries happen a few at a time, in industries that appear to be unrelated. But the dangers of dust in many industries is well-documented.

A report from the Center for Public Integrity found that since 1980, dust has been involved in more than 450 accidents, killed almost 130 people and injured 800. Because of poor reporting requirements, those numbers low.

Now that the election is past, the U.S. Department of Labor should move the goal of preventing dust explosions and fires back up on the priority list.


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