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Beware of Combustible Dust Levels in the Winter

Posted on December 13, 2011

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board continues to urge OSHA for a new combustible dust standard. As the winter months approach, manufacturers must continue to take proper measures to decrease combustible dust accumulations as weather conditions during this season can increase chances of dust igniting.

Taken from Safety Messages – Take More Action to Prevent Dust Explosions by John Bresland, previous Chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, February 4, 2009

Recently I spoke about the need for effective winterization programs to prevent dangerous failures of process piping and equipment. But there’s another kind of hazard that appears to be particularly acute during the winter months: combustible dust. I call on industry to take this hazard seriously – during the winter months and throughout the year. And I urge the incoming leadership at OSHA to act upon the CSB’s recommendations from 2006 to develop a comprehensive regulatory standard for combustible dust. Of eight catastrophic dust explosions since 1995, all but one occurred during cold weather months. Four disastrous dust explosions occurred during the month of February alone. According to experts, low humidity levels in winter can make dust particularly easy to disperse and ignite. And this danger is not one to overlook: since the CSB was established in 1998, three of the four deadliest accidents that we have investigated have been combustible dust explosions. These accidents struck suddenly at major manufacturing sites in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Georgia, and they caused horrible human suffering. A total of 27 workers lost their lives, and scores of others were injured. A number suffered severe burn injuries that left them terribly disfigured or unable to work. All three plants were devastated and needed to be completely rebuilt at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. The tragic thing about dust explosions is that they are readily preventable. The key is to avoid accumulations of combustible dust – particularly on elevated or hard-to-clean elevated surfaces. The National Fire Protection Association warns that even 1/32” of an inch of accumulated dust can give rise to an explosion. That’s about the thickness of a dime. Many common solids – like sugar, flour, coal, aluminum, and most plastics and organic chemicals – can pose a dust explosion risk. This is an insidious danger, and it doesn’t take much dust to destroy a facility. So companies that handle or process these materials in powdered form need to be extremely vigilant.