A high-stakes dustup is shaping up in connection with the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) proposed new standard to regulate combustible dust. When and if enacted, this new OSHA regulation will definitely affect the way personnel handle coal at power plants that use it for fuel.

Current Status of Proposed OSHA Standard

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) completed a study of combustible dust hazards in late 2006. Then the CSB recommended that OSHA pursue a rulemaking on the issue. OSHA has previously addressed aspects of this risk. For example, in 2005, OSHA published the bulletin “Combustible Dust in Industry: Preventing and Mitigating the Effects of Fire and Explosions.” Later, in 2008, OSHA implemented a Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program (NEP). However, the agency currently does not have a comprehensive standard that addresses combustible dust hazards. OSHA intends to use the information gathered from the NEP to help develop the new proposed rule.

OSHA published an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) on Oct. 21, 2009. Stakeholder meetings followed in Washington, Atlanta, and Chicago in 2009 and 2010. A webchat for combustible dust was also held in June 2010. The next step in this rulemaking process will be to initiate the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act review in April 2011 to give small businesses the ability to participate in the process. It is unknown how long this step in the process will take.

The Argument for Using the NFPA’s Combustible Dust Standard as a Model

On Jan. 19, 2010, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) President C. Christopher Patton commented on OSHA’s combustible dust ANPRM. He emphasized that the ASSE can support a new standard, but only one that is no less effective than the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) voluntary consensus standard NFPA 654, which addresses combustible dust.

“Most important to note is that the NFPA dust explosion standards are categorized according to industry,” Patton pointed out. “A key ASSE concern with this rulemaking is that, because various OSHA standards now govern employer’s [sic] responsibilities concerning combustible dust, this rulemaking will seek to establish a single overarching standard that compromises needed specificity in an effort to address various industries and workplace situations.”

Currently, NFPA 654 is being updated; the latest revision is scheduled for completion in 2011, according to Patton. He urged OSHA to work closely with the NFPA 654 Committee and approach a new standard deliberately so that a final rule can reflect the best and latest perspectives on addressing combustible dust risks.

Dealing with Combustible Dust During Uncertain Times

Robert Taylor, who works for American Electric Power’s (AEP’s) environmental, health, and safety division, shared with POWER his views about the ongoing developments related to both OSHA and NFPA standards.

“What this simply means is that both new ‘standards’ could affect industry, and a level of uncertainty currently exists,” he said.

Based on the infrastructure found in many coal-fired power plants, some have invested millions of dollars in their improvements in order to control dust effectively, Taylor explained. Others are concerned that new standards will force significant expenditures at a time when increasing pressures and demands are being placed on fossil fuels.

“But more important than the money is the goal of protecting people,” Taylor said. “For this reason, many electric utilities such as AEP focus on continual improvements in coal handling. This includes ‘putting the human eye on it’ by physically looking at the processes, systems, and equipment on a regular basis; reviewing the effectiveness of procedures and of education/training; evaluating controls, such as controlling dust at point-of-source and ignition sources; and managing change.”

Another Perspective: Change Attitudes, Not Standards

Ed Douberly, president of Utility FPE Group, told POWER that instead of OSHA enacting a new standard, he thinks it would be far better if the electric power industry began to police its own obligations to comply with requirements already on the books.

If OSHA wants to make a statement that would dramatically influence the reduction of combustible hazards, its resources would be better spent on training its enforcement officers on recognizing combustible hazards and the sources of the dusts and stating clear remediation requirements, Douberly suggested.

“My opinion is that a new regulation is not required,” Douberly said. “What is required is that our industry take seriously its responsibility to provide a safe workplace by implementing regulations already in place and adopting industry best practices. Combustible dust control must be placed into the same realm as the hallmarks of safety programs: confined space policies, lock out/tag out, personal protective equipment, and fall protection. However, it takes very little money to initiate a procedural-driven safety program. It takes millions of dollars—not just spent, but spent on the right things—to initiate a successful scheme to eliminate coal dust as a hazard.”

In the Meantime

At this point, it appears that the stakeholders will have to wait until the dust settles regarding the fate of OSHA’s proposed new standard. Whatever the outcome, supervisors at coal-fired power plants need to continue to make every effort to implement effective combustible dust control measures in order to protect their workers’ safety.

Angela Neville, JD, is POWER’s senior editor.