As the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) prepares to target combustible dust, it's taking a closer look at the solid waste industry.The agency is considering adopting a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) combustible dust standard -- NFPA 654 -- that recommends surfaces have less than 1/32 of an inch of dust -- the thickness of a dime -- on no more than 5% of a room's surface.

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board recommends that OSHA make the standard a federal requirement. In 2006 the board's Combustible Dust Hazard Study found that between 1980 and 2005, 281 combustible dust incidents killed 119 workers and injured 718. Since then, 16 additional deaths and 84 injuries occurred between 2006 and 2008.The National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA) doesn't believe such a regulation should be applied to the solid waste industry, and until now OSHA's agreed, telling the association that it didn't intend to regulate the solid waste industry. The agency has no record of a combustible dust explosion at a transfer station, materials recovery facility, or landfill. So why single out solid waste now?

"We deal with a lot of issues, but dust becoming explosive isn't one of them," says David Biderman, NSWMA safety director and general counsel. "It would be very challenging to comply; and there's not a single recorded case of an incident at a solid waste or recycling facility in the government's report on combustible dust."

If complying would require investing in specialized equipment, such a rule also would be very expensive. Although local governments in about half the states don't have to comply with OSHA regulations, it will be difficult to estimate what the cost of compliance will be until we know the standard is finalized. Meanwhile, especially in light of separate dust explosions - including one at a Georgia sugar refinery that claimed 14 lives and injured numerous others in 2003 -- Congress also is addressing safety issues related to dust.

The Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act of 2009(H.R. 849) would require both public and private industries to follow a standard similar to NFPA 654.The NFPA standards include guidelines for identifying and developing a plan to minimize or eliminate a particular hazard. Facility managers must perform a hazard assessment, isolate the equipment or process causing that hazard, and teach employees how to protect themselves in the event of an explosion.