OSHA proposes $8.7 million fine for Imperial Sugar

by Ron Sterk
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WASHINGTON — The Occupational Safety and Health Administration today proposed $8,777,500 in fines against the Imperial Sugar Co. for 211 violations at plants in Port Wentworth, near Savannah, Ga., and Gramercy, La.

"I am outraged that this company would show a complete disregard for its employees’ safety by knowingly placing them in an extremely dangerous work environment," said Edwin G. Foulke Jr., assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. "What is even worse is that a month after the devastating catastrophe in Port Wentworth that claimed the lives of 13 people, this company had done little to ensure abatement of the combustible dust hazards at its other plant. If OSHA investigators had not inspected and posted an imminent danger notice regarding areas at the second plant, the same thing could have happened again."

In a statement issued by Imperial, president and chief executive officer John Sheptor said, "Today we received citations from OSHA and made our initial review and evaluation of the allegations contained in the citations. Based on this review, we have filed with OSHA a ‘notice to contest’ of the citations, in which we challenge the allegations of the citations, the characterization of the violations and the penalties proposed. In short, we believe that the facts do not merit the allegations made."

The fines would be the third largest ever from OSHA and include $5,062,000 for 120 violations at the Savannah plant, where an explosion on Feb. 7 killed 13 and injured dozens of workers, and $3,715,500 for 91 violations at the Gramercy facility. OSHA considered egregious 61 of the violations at Savannah and 47 at Gramercy.

OSHA said it believes employees in a silo at the Georgia plant were using a metal rod and hammer to break up sugar that had hardened so it could be collected in buckets for processing. A spark ignited the sugar dust causing the initial explosion and pushing dust into other parts of the plant, and a series of second explosions ensued.

"As we go forward, we will continue to focus on the safety of our employees and our contractors, not only as we rebuild our Port Wentworth, Ga., facility, but also at our Gramercy, La., and Ludlow, Ken., facilities," Mr. Sheptor said.

The Port Wentworth facility was the second-largest sugar refinery in the United States. Imperial said it hopes to resume refining cane sugar at the plant before the end of the year.

Imperial Sugar has 15 business days to contest the citations and proposed penalties before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

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