OSHA Brings More Experts to Investigate Sugar Refinery Explosion

OSHA assistant secretary Edwin Foulke.
OSHA assistant secretary Edwin Foulke.

PORT WENTWORTH, GA (WTOC) - As the investigation into the explosion at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth continues, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration is bringing in more experts.

Congressman Jack Kingston (R-GA Dist. 1) and representatives from Imperial Sugar and OSHA held a news conference this afternoon to give us an update on the investigation and what their plans are as they spend the next several weeks looking at aspects of the explosion and the refinery operations.

For three weeks now, investigators from Imperial Sugar, OSHA, and the Chemical Safety Board have been doing their best to figure out what happened the night of February 7.

Today, OSHA assistant secretary Edwin Foulke came from Washington, DC, to evaluate their progress.

"We review everything," he said in a one-on-one interview with WTOC. "We interview employees, managers at the site, look at documents, physical examination at the site, and to see if there were any safety standards that the employer did not address prior to the incident."

Foulke was quick to point out this process takes time and they won't release anything until they are completely finished with their investigation, which could take up to six months.

Meanwhile, Foulke says OSHA is sending out 30,000 letters to other companies that deal with combustible dust to discuss the dangers.

"We strongly encourage any facility to review their facility and included our combustible dust safety letter which outlines combustible explosions and provide information on OSHA resources to deal with hazards," said Foulke.

Foulke says he has a lot of experience dealing with these types of explosions and almost every time, they come up with the same conclusion.

"If you ask most combustible dust experts as to what's the cause they will say house keeping is a major cooperate in explosions and in our investigating we have found that is the case," said Foulke.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that's the case in Port Wentworth. Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor wasn't at the news conference, but released this in a statement:

"Since this tragedy occurred, we have worked closely with local, state and federal investigators. We look forward to continuing to work with those who share our dedication and commitment to ascertaining both the cause of this incident and in doing so prevent future tragedies."

Foulke says OSHA just wants to find the truth. "When we have a tragedy like this, it's one fatality too many and we will continue to do whatever we can to bring that number down."

Imperial Sugar has been inspected before and did not have any violations.

OSHA has six months to complete its investigation, and if it does issue any violations, the company can appeal. We will keep you posted on what happens.

Reported by: Brooke Kelley, bkelley@wtoc.com