Jeff Johnson
Jeff Johnson

Fellowship Title:

Death by Dust

Jeff Johnson
February 26, 2018

Fellowship Year

The Hayes Lemmerz aluminum wheel manufacturing plant fire and explosion was one of three combustible dust industrial accidents that killed 14 workers in a single year. Photo credit: Chemical Safety Board.
The Hayes Lemmerz aluminum wheel manufacturing plant fire and explosion was one of three combustible dust industrial accidents that killed 14 workers in a single year. Photo credit: Chemical Safety Board.

Tammy Miser got the call late at night from a family friend. Her brother Shawn may have been injured in a work accident and it might be serious.

Shawn Boone was a maintenance man at the Hayes Lemmerz plant in Huntington, Ind., a manufacturer of aluminum automobile wheels. Tammy’s husband, Mark, worked at the plant and had helped Shawn, 33, get the job; Tammy was his big sister in a close family.

She sped to the hospital in Indiana, a five-hour drive from her home in Kentucky. She was scared and flying blind. No official from the company or anywhere else had told her or anyone she knew about details of the accident.

The family friend lived near the hospital and got there first. She told Miser that a nurse said a badly burned male had come in without identification.

“We hoped and prayed it wasn’t Shawn,” Miser said.

When she finally reached the hospital, Miser raced inside. An onsite pastor greeted her and told her to prepare herself because he hadn’t seen anything like this since the war.

“There was no body hair, no physical markings,” Miser said.

“My Shawn was ultimately identified by body weight and type. We were told they were only keeping him alive for the family. They told us his internal organs were burned beyond repair.

They could take his legs and take his arms but he wouldn’t make it, and it would just drag out his death. It was horrible but we took him off life support.

“We watched him take his last breath and die before our eyes. His last words were ‘I am in a world of hurt.’”

She wanted to know how and why he died. The company wouldn’t talk so Miser tried to get the federal safety regulator, the Occupation Safety & Health Administration, to give her information about the accident and the company. That proved to be the final insult.

“OSHA told me I could file a request to get inspection reports and penalties and accident information, but it would cost two-hundred bucks. Two hundred dollars! And from a family that had just lost a loved one and usually their breadwinner.”

Miser went on a mission. She knew little about the company and nothing about OSHA or industrial accidents. Families of workers killed on the job, she said, are all in the same boat and are just thrown into all this when a family member dies. She set out to change that as best she could.

Dust can kill, she learned. In microscopic clouds, swirling on a factory floor, sawdust, fine plastic or metal shavings even sugar can ignite and explode from a spark. In Miser’s brother’s case, it was aluminum shavings and a furnace flame.

OSHA, she learned, is part of the federal Department of Labor. Its job is to enforce regulations; it only investigates accidents to look for who to blame and who should be fined. She learned that the Hayes Lemmerz accident was one of at least three dust-related accidents in 2003 that had killed 14 workers.

She also discovered that, unlike OSHA, the federal Chemical Safety Board does investigate industrial accidents to determine the cause and it was just beginning a study of dust-related accidents.

Miser had never heard of the Chemical Safety Board. It proved to be her only government friend in her search for information about the death of her brother and other workers.

Her personal search for facts and resolution following a horrendous accident gives a thumbnail sketch of the difficulties in overcoming corporate and government inertia and opposition in a battle to provide a safe workplace.

Miser was in her mid-thirties when Boone died. She had worked in egg processing plants and a mix of small-scale foundries and factories assembling electronic equipment, ballasts and wire harnesses. She traveled, working in Kentucky, Indiana and even down to Florida.

“We moved with the jobs,” she said. She’d never organized a protest or testified for a law. All that changed with her brother’s death. She grew to be an advocate for workplace safety.

A small, unpretentious woman, Miser found herself at congressional hearings, seated at the dais, speaking up for families and workers with a straight-ahead, gravelly voice. Often she was uncomfortably placed next to a top federal safety official, who struggled to avoid explaining why workers, like her brother, didn’t need protections from exploding industrial dust. Miser’s honest, down-to-earth presentations stood in sharp contrast to the usual Capitol Hill fare.

She began her travail by contacting the Chemical Safety Board. CSB is a tiny and mostly unknown federal agency. It is staffed by engineers, safety experts and accident investigators. Its job is to investigate fresh accident sites, interview survivors, company officials and safety regulators to discover what blew up and how to fix it. Then, the agency writes up an accident report and makes it public.

CSB’s recommendations usually challenge the operations of plant managers and government regulators, such as OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Its conclusions are rarely popular with those who run or regulate companies. But it is the only agency charged to investigate and find the cause of industrial accidents in America.

It is among the agencies President Donald Trump wants to eliminate and tried to do so in his last budget plan. Trump is hardly alone. It has been proposed for the chopping block several times since it first began operating in 1998. In fact, although created in 1990, it was not funded for eight years, until a string of accidents overcame presidential and congressional reluctance to put an independent agency in charge of investigating industrial disasters.

This year, its small budget of $11 million was quietly extended through provisions buried in the huge federal appropriation. With this budget and 40-person staff, it can investigate only a sliver of some 250 accidents that occur each year, which by law it is supposed to consider investigating.

For comparison, the National Transportation Safety Board, which is also independent and investigates transportation accidents and upon which CSB is modeled, is 10-times larger in staff and funding.

Unlike the NTSB, which investigates airline and train crashes that everyone fears, CSB investigates industrial accidents, which are more frequent but are a flash in the daily news. The deaths per accident may be smaller than a plane crash but they add up.

CSB found that between 1980 and 2005, 281 combustible dust incidents killed 119 workers and injured 718. The incidents occurred in 44 states, in many different industries, and involved a variety of different materials.

Microscopic dust, like the fine aluminum particles that killed Miser’s brother, can become a fuel that burns and explodes when dispersed and mixed with oxygen in air. The dust is often an industrial waste material—metal powders, wood sawdust, or plastic shavings—found lying on factory floors, on overhead beams, in cracks, above false ceilings and elsewhere in a manufacturing plant. When disturbed and in the presence of oxygen and an ignition source, dust burns and explodes. In a dirty plant, the first blast often triggers a cascade of dust, triggering an ever bigger explosion, which is what happened to Boone.

It doesn’t take much. CSB found one-quarter of inch of dust was enough to kill six workers at a North Carolina pharmaceutical plant in 2003.

Shortly after her brother’s death, Miser formed the United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities, a nonprofit that supports and provides guidance and resources to people whose world has been destroyed by an on-the-job accident.

“We try to help families,” Miser says. “After a family member’s death, we contact them to tell them someone is here. We help them get answers and comfort.”

The first and sometime hardest part, Miser found out, is finding the families, widows, children and next of kin. The information is not easily available; companies and government officials claim privacy concerns and there was no formal process requiring notification of family following an industrial accident.

Miser and her organization use phone books, web searches to try to find next of kin. Families at first are not ready to talk, she says. It takes about six months for them to come to grips with what happened.

“But we want them to know we are out there and willing to help. They might have questions and need answers about what happened. We try to keep them informed and put them in contact with other people who know exactly what they are going through,” Miser adds. “Sometimes they just want an ear. We created a private page on Facebook where they can vent.”

Her website opens with rolling photos of workers who were killed on the job, often shown with their families. “Our loved ones are not just another statistic,” the web page says. “They are so much more than that. Our pictures truly tell everyone that they were not just a workplace death but someone left a family behind and were truly loved.”

Families must deal with grief and frustration, she said, that sometimes never goes away.

“Shawn’s accident was the hardest thing my family has had to deal with until 2007,” Miser says. “My youngest brother drove half way across the United States with a few photos and phone records of the night Shawn was killed tucked in his bible. Tommy then proceeded to shoot himself in the head. I can’t say that Shawn’s death alone caused my brother to take his own life, but I know for a fact he couldn’t deal with it and that was what was on his mind.”

The Chemical Safety Board’s investigations had showed combustible dust hazards in U.S. workplaces were real but still no federal standards existed to control conditions leading to dust explosions in general industry. OSHA leveled fines but only after the disaster occurred. There was little focus on prevention.

CSB recommended that OSHA issue an enforceable, comprehensive combustible dust standard for industry that calls for engineered controls, such as dust collection systems, as well as housekeeping and training requirements. The OSHA enforceable standard should be based on voluntary standards developed by the National Fire Protection Association, an organization of firefighters, according to CSB. Meanwhile the board recommended OSHA put in place temporary measures while regulations were developed.

OSHA did nothing and accidents continued. From 2008 to 2012, CSB documented 50 combustible dust accidents that led to 29 worker deaths and 161 injuries. Most horrendous, in February 2008, a series of sugar dust explosions and fires rolled through narrow passages at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Georgia, trapping dozens of workers underground and killing 14 and badly burning more than 30 others, and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in property losses.

CSB’s call for enforceable regulations to control dust was similar to what OSHA had done 30 years earlier, when it developed a set of regulations for agricultural combustible dust in the grain industry. Not so with industrial dust.

Meanwhile, Miser was coming to embrace the need for regulations. Families of workers killed on the job, she said, assume that whatever caused the accident would be fixed. She learned, however, that it often was not.

Consequently, she broadened her group’s mission to include a fight for safer workplaces. She joined with CSB and testified at many congressional and accident hearings, prodding the government to require safer practices for all industries, not just those with industrial dust problems.

Miser pinned her hopes on a bill first introduced in 2004 but never passed. She believed it would take off with the new Obama Administration.

The Protecting American Workers Act had strong backing by safety experts and unions. It carried provisions to toughen U.S. safety regulations, increase fines for safety infractions, and most important for Miser, would give families the right to meet with OSHA investigators, receive copies of safety citations and be heard before any settlement is reached with a company.

In cases where a worker is killed or incapacitated, the bill gives family members the formal right to participate on a worker’s behalf.

All of this would be free to the family. Also for the first time, families would be able to participate in settlement negotiations and enforcement decisions.

Industry opposed the bill. The American Chemistry Council, the nation’s largest chemical industry trade association, urged OSHA to continue with its current dust standards and proposed a web-based educational program. The industry group also told OSHA to gather more information, meet with regulated industries and “avoid mandating specific technologies and prescriptive methodologies.”

OSHA’s support was lukewarm. Despite congressional hearings, the bill died. Miser, however, persisted and OSHA enacted a policy change in 2012 to provide grieving families with free public information about company accidents and history, opening a small but significant crack in a wall that kept families in the dark after a deadly industrial accident. Under the policy, following an accident, OSHA representatives must also find and contact families of workers, establishing a point of contact and maintaining a working relationship with the family.

“We now can get a full inspection report and we don’t have to pay for it,” Miser said. “This information is part of the healing process for many families. We couldn’t get the bill but we got a policy change, and if they take it away, they are going to have to face me.”

The Protect American Workers Act was introduced again in 2017 and Miser hopes this time may be different. But today’s political climate is unlikely to favor bills that protect the nation’s workers and communities.

Unfortunately, in the end, the success or failure of industrial safety legislation may ultimately depend on what goes wrong in America’s workplaces.

Jeff Johnson, of Washington, D.C., is examining the federal Chemical Safety Board and its efforts to regulate chemical disasters under an Alicia Patterson Foundation grant.