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Imperial Sugar Company Rises from the Combustible Dust Ashes

Posted on October 8, 2010

Nearly 3 years after the combustible dust accident heard ’round the world, Imperial Sugar Company has literally rose from the ashes; turning a company associated with tragedy into a company leading the way on safety. The below post from their website (also featured in Food Safety Magazine) details the state-of-the-art transformations the company has recently completed, including dustless loading spouts  to eliminate exposed sugar dust in the shipping processes for bulk trucks and railcars– the first system of its kind in the sugar industry.  

Transformation in the Face of Crisis

Food Safety Magazine

Finding opportunity amidst tragedy takes courage.

Following a 2008 industrial accident at Imperial Sugar Company’s Port Wentworth, GA refinery, Imperial was presented with its most daunting hurdles to date. The company faced extensive rebuilding efforts after the incident destroyed the plant’s packaging area and damaged its three storage silos. As a result, 12% of Imperial Sugar’s Port Wentworth refinery was rendered inoperable until rebuilding efforts were completed.

Tom Wilson, technical services manager, listens carefully during a customer audit. 

As the company and the surrounding community began to heal and rebuild, the sugar industry leader took bold action to transform a series of challenges into the creation of a state-of-the-art facility that is reshaping industry best practices.
This article discusses how the company emerged from the crisis as an industry change agent.

Rebuilding Efforts
When envisioning the reconstructed Port Wentworth facility, food safety, quality and sanitation played key roles in Imperial Sugar’s transformative design-build efforts.

Alterations to the original layout of the plant were made to create more efficiency and establish separate production, packing and shipping facilities to keep each step of the refining process isolated. Additionally, the construction of the facility’s floors and walls were modified to improve product sanitation. Floors were sloped for easy drainage, allowing all surfaces in the facility to be washed easily. The company also constructed a viewing corridor that overlooks the plant’s interior space and allows personnel to observe operations without physically being in the production area and potentially exposing the product to contaminants. The improved layout of the plant, coupled with state-of-the-art equipment, would contribute to a well-organized, clean and safe environment for both employees and its products.

To complement the renovated facility, Imperial Sugar also installed the latest in manufacturing equipment, creating a system that provides the safest operations in the industry today. Dense phase conveyance systems help prevent the breakdown of sugar crystals as they are transported down the production and packaging lines, helping to reduce the occurrence of combustible dust.

To ensure the integrity and safety if its products, the company implemented a rigorous detection system made up of several high-performance components. Magnetics, Inc.’s Ox system, which is composed of rare-earth magnets, was put in place throughout the packaging area to help protect the product from infiltration of foreign metals. Additionally, X-ray detectors that identify both metal and glass fragments were installed, and traditional metal detectors were put in place on smaller-scale production lines. Combined, the three-tiered approach to foreign object identification results in the most comprehensive system available today, providing Imperial’s customers with the peace of mind that comes with the highest level of food safety.

Steps were also taken to protect food products during the packing and shipping phases, in which millions of pounds of sugar are loaded into packages of all sizes. Dustless loading spouts were installed to eliminate exposed sugar dust in the shipping processes for bulk trucks and railcars, creating the first system of its kind in the sugar industry. While passing through magnets, metal detectors and hummer screens, the product remains completely sealed from the silo to the truck or rail car.

Concurrent with the rebuilding process, Imperial Sugar took the opportunity to provide its employees with vital training to equip them with the very latest in operational and food safety techniques.

The company implemented a robust training program, which resulted in the certification of 10 Safe Quality Food (SQF) practitioners and 10 associates who are Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) certified. Conducting its training program via an interactive computer-based system, Imperial Sugar customized training modules to fit the plant’s unique processes. Featuring language and terms used in everyday operations at Port Wentworth, the training program instructed employees in several categories of health and safety, including protection against food contamination and emergency preparedness.

Additionally, the Port Wentworth plant has achieved a SQF Level 2 certification, which recognizes the refinery’s compliance with international and domestic food safety regulations. To garner this distinction, the company completed a food safety risk assessment of its products and process using the HACCP method and created an action plan to eliminate, prevent or reduce food safety hazards. Imperial Sugar is currently working to achieve an SQF Level 3 designation for Port Wentworth in the near term.

“Investing in our associates to equip them with the best safety training available was just an essential as rebuilding Port Wentworth’s physical facilities,” said Wilson. “Our unique training program provides our team with the latest best practices in food safety that will help them operate our new state-of-the-art facility.”

Reaching Out
With the vast knowledge of food safety best practices gained during the rebuilding, Imperial decided that partnership and collaboration would be required to truly affect industry-wide change. Imperial felt an obligation to do everything possible to heighten awareness of the risks of combustible dust throughout the food industry. As a result, the company invited peers, customers and partners to visit Port Wentworth to witness first-hand the progress the plant had made. During these visits, the company discussed the impact of exposed combustible dust and shared best practices to ensure that others in the industry were aware of the latest techniques available to mitigate risks associated with the issue.

Additionally, Imperial Sugar partnered with its customers to discover new ways to improve its existing best practices. The company holds meetings and town halls with its customers to address their questions and share lessons learned. In fact, customer collaboration led to the development of new ways to sequence Port Wentworth’s production cycle and improve sanitation in the facility.

Imperial Sugar has also maintained a proactive and transparent relationship with the regulatory agencies that play a role in monitoring the plant’s rebuilding progress. Company officials in Port Wentworth contacted the Georgia Department of Agriculture, inviting them to the new facility to provide recommendations for the company’s ongoing rebuilding process. The partnership spurred a great deal of collaboration, and following numerous visits to Port Wentworth, the department was able to witness many of their suggestions put into action.

“Through forward-thinking and collaboration with industry peers, valued customers and governmental agencies, we made transformation part of the solution,” said Wilson.

Moving Forward
Today, Imperial Sugar continues to take strides to improve its food safety efforts while restoring the Port Wentworth plant to full production capacity. Through courage and close partnership with its stakeholders, the rebuilding process has yielded a plant that is among the safest and most advanced in the industry. Through innovation, the plant has become a state-of-the-art facility staffed by highly trained operators, solidifying Imperial’s position as an industry change agent and a leader in food safety.

Tom Wilson is the technical service manager at Imperial Sugar’s Port Wentworth, GA bulk sugar refinery. He has been with the company more than 28 years and has been a supervisor at Port Wentworth for 10 years.