Chain of Thought

OSHA Should Beware of Combustible Trust

That old line about the sliding scale of untruths—lies, damn lies and statistics—is fun to use when someone quotes a number to support their argument. How many times have you read an article that debunks a widely-believed statistic? A few years ago chocolate was bad for you. Too much sugar, caffeine and empty calories. Now the conventional wisdom is that chocolate is good for you. Its antioxidants will help you live to 150. That's if you don't get killed in an industrial dust explosion first.

That was another popular belief a couple years ago—that lift trucks were involved in many of the combustibe dust violations found by OSHA inspectors. That stat was reported in a status report OSHA published in 2009 on its Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program.

“Employers were cited for violations of personal protective equipment, electrical equipment for hazardous (classified) locations, first aid, powered industrial trucks, and fire extinguisher standards during these inspections,” the report stated. It documented this with a chart showing Powered Industrial Trucks responsible for 236 violations—third behind hazard communication and Housekeeping.

Recently, John Astad, an expert on the hazards of combustible dust whom I've quoted in previous blogs, e-mailed me a new version of this report. It had the same chart, but the industrial trucks category was missing. He was concerned that, whether this were a mistaken or an intentional omission on OSHA's part, that it could lower a user's guard about the dangers of using spark-ignited engines in dusty environments and leave them vulnerable to citations.

Astad is sensitive to irregularities in OSHA stats, citing one in particular which states that 90% of combustible dust related incidents result in injuries or fatalities. This is diametrically opposed to his own research done in 2008 where he found that fewer than 10% of ComDust related incidents resulted in injuries or fatalities.

I checked with my source at OSHA, and after a little investigation, here's what he found out about that chart from which the industrial trucks category was removed:

“After reviewing the data on which the bar chart was based, it was concluded that powered industrial trucks were involved in not 236 violations, but only 24 violations,” he told me. “In other words, 212 of the 236 combustible dust related violations attributed to powered industrial trucks had nothing to do with combustible dust. This error was rectified in our revision, in May of 2010.”

I share this with you as a reminder to keep that salt shaker handy next time you're being fed statistics. Numbers go down easier with large grains of salt.

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