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Don’t Forget Combustible Dust During Fire Prevention Week

Posted on October 5, 2010

Fire Prevention WeekEven though NFPA’s fire prevention week  (October 3-9) primarily focuses on fire safety in the home, we want to remind you that it doesn’t stop there.  Fire prevention and safety is just as important in the workplace.  These past couple years we’ve all heard a lot about combustible dust explosions in the industrial sector…but in the words of John Astad, “it’s the fires stupid.”  Below is Fired Up, an article that ran in the December edition of Occupational Health & Safety magazine written in conjunction with Mr. Astad. Thanks again to John for his help.

FIRED UP: Combustible Dust Raises Explosive Issues

By now, most manufacturers are familiar with the story of combustible dust. They’ve read about it in the newspaper, ‘Googled’ it online, watched it on CBS’s 60 Minutes special[i], or received a letter from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration informing them their facility is considered high-risk for a combustible dust explosion. They have a solid picture in their minds of what an industrial explosion scene looks like; the remnants of a facility, a gaping whole, a collapsed roof, workers covered in soot and blood. It’s like a well-crafted movie scene; except, its real-life.

Combustible dust has been the culprit of deadly work-place blasts for decades, but it wasn’t until an explosion in 2008 that killed 14 people at The Imperial Sugar Refinery in Port Wentworth, GA, that the issue began getting the attention it deserved.  OSHA stepped in reissuing its Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program and the industrial world became inundated with statistics, definitions and preventative measures. 

But with all the media attention and new-found information regarding combustible dust explosions, very little attention has been devoted to the most common combustible dust-related incident happening daily at facilities across the United States; fires. Essentially pre-cursors to explosions, combustible-dust fires are often regarded as “a part of business,” especially in heavy-industrial manufacturing facilities where eliminating hazardous dust is next to impossible. But although small dust-related fires might be the norm for some manufacturers, flames that don’t lead to a deadly explosion should be considered a near miss. Yet unlike explosions that get often get top billing in newspapers and on the nightly news, small fires usually get just a few brief sentences, if covered at all. They also are rarely reported to state and federal agencies, since aside from random inspections; OSHA only investigates significant incidents involving a fatality or extensive injuries[ii].

John Astad, founder of the Combustible Dust Policy Institute, has taken the issue into his own hands, starting a grass-roots effort to raise awareness and understanding of all facets of the combustible dust issue. Through his research, which includes combing the web for news articles that contain key words and calling on local fire departments, Astad discovered through media accounts that 80% of combustible dust incidents in 2008 were solely fires, and 30% of dust explosions were at facilities where they had experienced prior related fires.[iii]Here are just some of the incidents Astad has come across through his research:

  • In June 2008, New Jersey firefighters responded to a fire at a paper recycling facility when paper particles in the duct system became overheated and ignited. The fire chief confirmed that similar fires happen several times a year at the location.[iv]
  • On June 20th of this year, five local fire departments converged on a fire at a sawmill in Pike County, OH. While the cause of this particular fire was unknown, the sheriff’s office said that the location is the site of fire calls from time-to-time because the dust related to cutting wood leads to easy combustion.[v]
  • In the summer of 2008, a wood stove pellet plant went up in flames twice in a 6-week period. Both incidents led to an explosion. A spark that ignited wood dust was responsible for at least one of the fires. Local residents, who have felt up to 4 blasts, described the company as a “hazard.”[vi]

Combustible dust fires occur when 3 components of the fire triangle exist:

  1. Combustible Dust (Fuel)
  2. Ignition Source (Heat)
  3. Oxygen in Air (oxidizer)

Fire_Marshal_BillMost industrial facilities have all three elements, and if fire ignites in a contained area where combustible dust particles have accumulated, such as a duct system or overhead beam, the formula for an explosion is complete. While an initial blast can be devastating, it often stirs up additional dust, leading to a secondary blast that can take down an entire facility.

Dust and debris are inevitable in the manufacturing sector and the only way to completely eliminate combustible-dust incidents is to shut down operation. Obviously, this is not an option, and so plants dealing with combustible dust must take the proper steps to educate themselves, decrease their risk, and be adequately prepared should a combustible dust incident occur.

A comprehensive maintenance plan is a solid first step in preventing a combustible dust-related fire or explosion and can greatly minimize the tragic effects of a secondary blast.  By letting dust accumulate on surfaces, facilities are literally adding fuel to the fire and efforts should be taken to insure that dust deposits greater than 1/32”, the thickness of a paperclip, are promptly removed, according to OSHA’s Combustible Dust NEP.[vii] While mops and brooms have their place in industrial facilities, the process is time consuming and often creates dust clouds. They also are very limited in what they can clean. A properly-equipped, HEPA-filtered industrial vacuum suitable for collecting combustible dust, can get the job done in half the time and be used to remove dust from machinery, floors, walls, and overhead pipes and vents.

Aside from proper maintenance techniques to reduce dust-build up, Astad is spreading the word about best engineering practices. As outlined in the National Fire Protection Association’s combustible dust standards, housekeeping alone will not minimize the severity and probability of occurrence.  Employees and managers should be trained to recognize and prevent combustible dust fires, and facilities should have a damage control plan which includes sprinklers, explosion protection systems, and deflagration venting.

In April 2009, OSHA announced the beginning of a rulemaking process that will hopefully one day make the aforementioned recommendations mandatory, although the process isn’t free from criticism. OSHA has been accused of doing too little, too late, and many are afraid that any combustible dust legislation will be hurriedly passed through to quiet the masses or without consideration for how companies will pay for mandatory systems. And while John Astad is critical of OSHA’s Combustible Dust NEP, he certainly doesn’t blame them and is appreciative of the steps they’ve taken thus far.

“The current (OSHA) Combustible Dust NEP formulated through the Chemical Safety Board recommendations is a start, but stakeholders throughout industry still have a long way to go,” he says.

Astad cautions that before any rulemaking process can proceed in a manner that adequately protects the workplace, while allowing companies to remain profitable, regulatory agencies must fully recognize the scope of the issue, and that includes accurately accounting for each and every combustible dust incident, including fires.

“Many people are saying that OSHA doesn’t have the resources, but that’s not true if we all worked together, says Astad, “local fire departments, authorities having jurisdiction, manufacturers, and those serving the industrial sector. We all have a stake in this and we can all make a difference.”

Dust-related fires and explosions have been happening since the dawn of manufacturing; and while industrial fires are not 100% preventable, manufactures should no longer view them as inevitable.  The industrial sector has come a long way from the workplace tragedies of the industrial revolution and with endless resources of education and means of prevention at their fingertips, there’s no reason why today’s manufacturers should go up in smoke.

[i] Is Enough Done to Stop Explosive Dust.  CBS News 60 Minutes.

[ii] OSHA Response to Significant Events of Potentially Catastrophic Consequences. <http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_id=1666&p_table=DIRECTIVES>.

[iii] Combustible Dust Policy Incident Blog. <http://dustexplosions.blogspot.com/2009/06/osha-region-iv-combustible-dust.html>.

[iv]Fire quickly extinguished at Homasote Co. NJ.com. <http://www.nj.com/mercer/index.ssf/2008/04/fire_quickly_extinguished_at_h.html>.

[vi] Fire reported for second time in six weeks at wood stove pellet plant. The Herald Mail. <.http://www.herald-mail.com/?cmd=displaystory&story_id=201753&format=html>.

[vii] Combustible Dust in Industry: Preventing and Mitigating
the Effects of Fire and Explosions. <http://www.osha.gov/dts/shib/shib073105.html>.