Most industrial settings have hazards of all types. One kind of hazard that is particularly acute during winter months is combustible dust. We feel it is important that we share some information on this dangerous situation that may be present in many businesses.
The National Fire Protection Association indicates that 1/32” of an accumulation of this kind of dust can rise to an explosion. This is an amount equal to the thickness of a dime. Any combustible material (and some materials normally considered noncombustible) can burn rapidly when in a finely divided form. Powdered products that are stored and transported in bulk bags can form combustible dust when the bags are filled or discharged. If such a dust cloud is hovering in air in the right strength, it can become explosive. Any source of ignition; a flame, heating elements, frictional spark, or electrostatic discharge can cause a detonation. Such an explosion can cause employee deaths, injuries, and destruction of entire buildings. These events have killed many employees and injured hundreds over the past decades. Materials that may form combustible dust include metals (such as aluminum, iron, zinc, and magnesium), wood, coal, plastics, paper, soap, and certain textiles. In many accidents, employers and employees were unaware that a hazard even existed. Other industries at risk of combustible dust explosions are: food, (e.g., candy, sugar, spice, starch, flour, feed), grain, tobacco, pulp, rubber, furniture, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, dyes, and fossil fuel power generation.
Dust Explosions are preventable. The National Fire Protection Association has comprehensive information that can help manufacturers avoid these catastrophes. They can assist company safety personnel, management, and others who are responsible for recognizing dust fire and explosion hazards byadvising them in establishing control measures. Good housekeeping is of the utmost importance. Many manufacturers use industrial dust and fume collection systems in their facilities.
One of the most important engineering controls available for improving or maintaining the quality of air in the work environment is ventilation. Ventilation is a way of controlling the environment with airflow. Facilities failing to furnish adequate maintenance of ventilation equipment, those workplaces operated to maximize energy conservation, windowless areas, and areas with high occupancies or confined spaces may have poor ventilation.
Personal protective equipment for employees in these industries includes respirators, hardhats, gloves, and eye protection, such as safety goggles. Protecting the employees by furnishing the right PPE, and controlling risk factors in the facility should be the main goal of any business. Those in charge should be aware of any previous fires their company has experienced.
Some of the above information was obtained from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency that investigates chemical accidents. These board members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They are comprised of chemical and mechanical engineers, safety experts, and others with vast experience in public and private sectors. Following their investigations, they make recommendations to OSHA, EPA, individual organizations and labor groups.
In 2003, the CSB launched investigations of three major industrial explosions involving combustible powders. These explosions – in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Indiana – cost 14 lives and caused numerous injuries and substantial property losses. The Board responded by launching a nationwide study to determine the scope of the problem and recommend new safety measures for facilities that handle combustible powders. The CSB issued its final report at a public meeting in Washington, DC, on November 9, 2006, calling for a new OSHA regulatory standard designed to prevent combustible dust fires and explosions.