LAKE LILLIAN, MN — Lawrence Fuchs often complained about the amount of grain dust during his 15 years of work in the grain elevator.

"He always said he couldn't clean it up alone," his wife, Mildred, remembered. "There was too much dust."

At about 11 in the morning, she heard a loud noise out back. When she looked out the back window, she saw the smoke. It was coming from the Lake Lillian Farmers Cooperative grain elevator. The blast ripped through the elevator. Fuchs was critically injured, the clothes burned off his body.

The dust, more explosive than TNT, had been ignited, and the blast ripped through the elevator. Within minutes, she learned that Fuchs was critically injured, the clothes burned off his body.

Lawrence Fuchs, 61, died on May 22, 1984, 11 days after the explosion. A customer in the elevator, Steven Nelson, died on July 31. Four years earlier, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration first announced its intention to limit the amount of explosive grain dust that could pile up in elevators.

Nearly four years after that explosion, the bureaucratic process goes on. There still is no grain dust standard in effect.

In 1982, the National Academy of Sciences had recommended limiting the amount of grain dust on any elevator surface to one-sixty-fourth of an inch. In January 1983, OSHA considered a looser grain safety standard, limiting accumulation of the deadly dust to one-eighth of an inch.

On Dec. 30, 1987, OSHA proposed its final recommended standard, limiting grain dust to one-eighth of an inch but only within 35 feet of machinery that might ignite it. In January, it was challenged in court and has yet to be put into effect.

Since OSHA first proposed the one-eighth inch standard, Fuchs and 15 other grain workers have been killed and 88 others have been injured in grain explosions.

"There is no new evidence, no new information," said Deborah Berkowitz, safety and health director for the Food and Allied Service Trades department of the AFL-CIO. "There is no reason to have held the standard."

However, John Pendergrass, the head of OSHA, said the agency worked with labor unions and elevator operators until it arrived at a standard "that will provide protection, will not be economically disastrous for anyone, and will work."

Setting standards for what is safe and what is dangerous — such as grain dust and how much chemical a worker should be exposed to in an eight-hour shift — may be OSHA's most difficult task.

During Pendergrass' two years as head of OSHA, the agency has improved considerably in setting safety and health standards, he said in an interview. The agency has proposed six health standards and eight safety standards in the last 18 months, he said.

Grain dust is nine times as explosive as coal dust and pound for pound it is more explosive than TNT. In its infancy in 1971, OSHA limited worker exposure to about 400 substances based on recommendations from the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. However, the agency has updated few of the standards since then, while the hygienists' group has strengthened its recommendations for 100 of the original chemicals and has added recommended limits for another 200 chemicals.

At least a million American workers today are exposed to chemicals that violate the hygienists' recommendations but still fall within OSHA limits, according to a September 1987 report by the Administrative Conference of the United States, an independent federal agency.

Moreover, more than 50 chemicals found in the workplace are confirmed or suspected to be cancer-causing by the National Toxicology Program, yet are unregulated by OSHA, according to the Administrative Conference.

Consider cadmium, a common metal to which at least a million workers are exposed, according to David Vladeck, an attorney for the Washington-based Public Citizen Litigation Group. The 1971 OSHA standard allows workers to be exposed to levels eight times higher than the amount now known to cause cancer in laboratory animals, Vladeck said.

At least 1,000 new chemicals are being added to the list of between 17,000 and 70,000 chemicals used in the workplace each year, according to the report.

Pendergrass, while pleased with the issuance of new standards under his stewardship, acknowledged that "the approach of producing a standard for every hazard just can't be done ... We can't do it. No one can do it."

Vladeck agreed. Even if OSHA worked at "optimum efficiency," he said, the agency could only issue new standards for one, two or three substances a year.

"Simply to get regulations in play for the known carcinogens being used in the workplace probably would take OSHA the better part of a decade," Vladeck said.

That is why the Hazard Communication, or "right-to-know," standard issued by OSHA is so important, Pendergrass said. That new regulation, echoing earlier efforts in many states, requires manufacturers to tell workers what hazardous substances they are working with.

... In the past 7 years, 40 people died and 202 were injured in 123 grain dust explosions at grain elevators and grain handling facilities. Grain dust is nine times as explosive as coal dust and pound for pound it is more explosive than TNT.


In the task of writing at best three standards each year for a list of chemicals growing by 1,000 per year, it seems that OSHA, quite literally, is being left in the dust.