Imperial Sugar responds to last week's Senate hearing

SAVANNAH, GA(WTOC) - Imperial Sugar has issued the following statement in regards to the Senate hearing last week:

Imperial Sugar Defends Record, Continues to Invest in Safety

Port Wentworth, GA - In response to testimony at a recent Senate hearing and OSHA's allegations in citations filed nearly two weeks ago, Imperial Sugar has begun taking steps to defend its ongoing record of investment and commitment to safety.  Under CEO John Sheptor's leadership, Imperial has invested in and improved safety at its facilities.  In the six months following the tragedy at its Port Wentworth facility, Imperial has continued this effort by aggressively implementing international best practices to reduce and manage combustible dust, even if OSHA fails to implement a regulatory standard for the remainder of the industry.

Largely for these reasons, Imperial notified OSHA of its intent to contest allegations contained in their citations - especially as they relate to the classification of violations.  "OSHA's comments and characterizations do not reflect the facts nor do they reflect this company's commitment to safety," said Sheptor.  An administrative law judge will have the opportunity to hear both OSHA's allegations and Imperial's defense to resolve the dispute.  Important facts relevant to Imperial's defense include:

  • At the time of the February 7, 2008 accident, the Port Wentworth plant's total rate of recordable injuries had steadily reduced by 33% since 2005.
  • OSHA's previous inspections of the Port Wentworth facility, conducted in May and June of 2000, resulted in no OSHA citations.
  • In fiscal year 2007, the Port Wentworth plant spent over $1.7 million on safety-related capital improvements to the facility.

In fact, Imperial had proactively taken steps to minimize dust hazards, including responding to OSHA's October 18, 2007 National Emphasis Program on combustible dust.  Some of the additional steps specifically targeted toward minimizing workplace hazards even prior to the February 2008 incident included:

  • refocusing efforts on housekeeping, including conducting daily walkthroughs with an eye toward both safety and quality;
  • focusing on critical and dust-prone production areas with personnel and resources in the areas of safety, quality, operations, maintenance and engineering; and
  • purchasing industrial vacuums, recommended in the National Emphasis Program, to clean dust and minimize airborne disbursement.

Another OSHA allegation unsupported by the facts is the contention Imperial did nothing at its Gramercy facility after the tragedy at Port Wentworth.  To the contrary, Imperial promptly undertook a thorough inspection and review of the facility.  Vice President of Operation, Graham Graham was directed by CEO Sheptor to personally oversee, identify and resolve any issues found there.  Graham was forwarded a March 7, 2008 letter from OSHA advising Imperial to ensure that its Gramercy plant was in compliance with OSHA standards, and it was reiterated to Graham that worker safety was Imperial's  top priority.  Sheptor directed Graham to periodically report to him on the status of the work being done at Gramercy.  Efforts were focused on housekeeping, outside guidance from leading experts was sought and received, and potential hazards were immediately addressed.  Imperial has committed $1.8 million in safety improvements at the Gramercy facility relating to combustible dust and it continues to take substantial steps to ensure a safe workplace, including:

  • Retaining the leading experts on combustible dust fire prevention and control, to work with Imperial's inside and outside designers and engineers to ensure the company's facility is designed according to the best international engineering practices as they relate to dust hazards;
  • Training all of Port Wentworth employees on combustible dust hazards.
  • Developing a process safety system of internal standards at both the Port Wentworth and Gramercy facilities to (1) ensure compliance with applicable safety standards and guidelines; (2) provide guidance on equipment selection, maintenance and operating practices; and (3) include tools on evaluating and controlling hazards. Imperial plans for this process to exceed OSHA standards, and incorporate both NFPA standards and the Europe's ATEX directives.
  • Continuing Imperial's internal safety training, audits and efforts at its facilities, including relating to emergency response and hazard control.

Imperial Sugar supports a combustible dust standard, and agrees with the House Report regarding the proposed combustible dust act, concluding that "although there are a variety of existing OSHA standards that inspectors can interpret to apply to combustible dust hazards ... most of the existing standards (e.g., housekeeping and General Duty) do nothing to educate or inform employers about how to prevent combustible dust explosions."  Whether or not OSHA decides to implement such a standard, Imperial is moving forward with guidance from outside experts to develop processes and programs that go above and beyond any standards contemplated in the discussions regarding a potential combustible dust standard.

"We respect that it is OSHA's mission to ensure that workplaces are safe and we share that mission.  We have done our very best to provide OSHA with any and all information the agency requested through their investigation," said Sheptor.  "We strongly disagree, however, with OSHA's conclusions, and we look forward to being able to present the facts showing our commitment to safety, both before the February 7 tragedy and afterwards."