Combustible dust is one of the most under-recognized hazards in industrial facilities. This is because many people, even safety professionals, are unaware of how common combustible dust is and how dangerous it can be.
Combustible dust is present in nearly every manufacturing and industrial processing facility across the globe — from aerospace and auto manufacturing to food processing and metalworking.
And, where there’s combustible dust, there’s the possibility of an explosion that can result in serious damage to your facility, your personnel, and, ultimately, your business. To illustrate the pervasiveness of this hazard, we’ve rounded up descriptions of combustible dust incidents from 15 different industries. As you peruse the examples below, keep in mind that combustible dust fires and explosions are 100% preventable through proper controls and housekeeping.
Powderpart Inc. – Woburn, Massachusetts – November 5, 2013
OSHA cited Powderpart Inc. for one willful and nine serious violations of workplace safety standards following a 2013 explosion that caused third-degree burns on an employee. After inspection, OSHA found that Powderpart wasn’t doing its part to prevent workers from explosion and fire hazards associated with combustible titanium and aluminum alloy powders. Jeffrey Erskine, OSHA’s director for the area, said: “Just as it’s easier to start a campfire with kindling than with logs, it’s easier for a metal fire to start when you’re working with metal powder that is as fine as confectioners sugar.” Powderpart was fined $64,400.
Aerospace and defense
UTC Aerospace Systems – Vergennes, Vermont – December 8, 2017
Three people were sent to the hospital after an explosion at UTC Aerospace Systems in Vergennes, Vermont. Police say the fire started in an outdoor dust collector and that the explosion caused “significant damage” to the building.
Nakanishi Manufacturing Corp. – Winterville, Georgia – September 23, 2015
A 33-year-old worker was operating a dust collector at Nakanishi when a dust explosion occurred. He was sent to the hospital with third-degree burns on his upper body. According to OSHA, the injury was a result of safety negligence — the company had experienced four previous fires in the dust collector. “Out of sight, out of mind is not an acceptable strategy for fixing workplace hazards,” said area OSHA director William Fulcher. “This mindset is dangerous, irresponsible and must be changed immediately.” The agency proposed $144,995 in fines for citations including failure to train employees on the hazards of combustible dust.
Veolia Environmental Services – Sarnia, Ontario – Oct. 25, 2014
It took only one second for a fireball created by an explosion in a dust collector to ignite airborne dust and create a second explosion that killed one person and injured five others at this environmental services provider. The dust was created as a byproduct of melting aluminum wire and spraying it on pipes as an anti-corrosion treatment. The company and a company manager were charged with criminal negligence.
Food manufacturing — Confectionery
Wrigley – Chattanooga, Tennessee – March 11, 2015
A massive fire broke out in a Wrigley plant’s dust collector, busting through the roof. The plant manager said the fire was fed by starch used to make Lifesavers. Fortunately, no injuries were reported at the time of the incident.
Food manufacturing — Ingredients
T.I.C Gums – Belcamp, Maryland – June 28, 2017
A dust explosion in a hopper at food texturizer and stabilizer manufacturer T.I.C. Gums was caused by malfunctioning equipment. The resulting fire spread to two other pieces of machinery. Fifty firefighters showed up to the scene and fought the blaze for an hour. No one was hurt, but the fire caused $30,000 in damages.
Food manufacturing — Pet food
Nestle Purina PetCare – Flagstaff, Arizona – September 14, 2014
Four people doing welding work were burned when grain dust ignited at a Nestle Purina PetCare plant. A state OSHA inspection found that the company failed to properly clean and prepare the grain elevator before the contractors began work. The agency fined the company $5,000, of which Nestle paid $3,500. One of the workers has since sued the company for personal injury.
Food manufacturing — Sugar
Imperial Sugar Company – Savannah, Georgia – February 7, 2008
The Imperial Sugar Company facility just outside of Savannah, Georgia, was completely destroyed after a series of sugar dust explosions raced their way through the building, burning through built-up combustible dusts. Fourteen workers were killed and another 38 were injured, many contracting life-threatening burns. In July 2008, OSHA issued Imperial Sugar Company $8,777,500 in fines, the fourth largest fine in OSHA history.
Furniture factory – Abbotsford, British Columbia – September 12, 2016
On the afternoon of September 12, 2016, firefighters responded to a hopper fire at a furniture manufacturing factory in British Columbia. They weren’t expecting anything out of the ordinary, but as they opened the hopper to access the flame, a dust explosion engulfed three of the firefighters. Miraculously, they all made it out unscathed.
Didion Milling Inc. – Cambria, Wisconsin – May 31, 2017
A fatal explosion at Didion Milling last year killed five workers and injured 12 others. OSHA officials believe the explosion was preventable and was the result of “Didion’s failures to correct the leakage and accumulation of highly combustible grain dust throughout the facility and to properly maintain equipment to control ignition sources.” Didion is facing up to $1,837,861 in fines.
U.S. Ink – East Rutherford, New Jersey – October 9, 2012
A poorly designed dust collection system was to blame for a flash fire that burned seven workers at an ink production facility. The system had been installed only four days prior, but the company had failed to perform a process hazard analysis or a management of change analysis to ensure it would work. In an investigation, the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) found that “the system was so flawed it only took a day to accumulate enough combustible dust and hydrocarbons in the duct work to overheat, ignite spontaneously, cause an explosion in the rooftop dust collector, and send back a fiery flash.”
Hoeganaes Corporation – Gallatin, TN – January 31, 2011; March 29, 2011; May 27, 2011
Three iron dust flash fires occurred in less than 6 months at Hoeganaes Corporation’s atomized steel and iron powder facility. In total, five people were killed and three were injured. The CSB found several problems at the facility, including dust collecting overhead (e.g., on beams and ledges), significant quantities of iron dust escaping from equipment, and dust collection systems that were unreliable.
AL Solutions – New Cumberland, West Virginia – December 9, 2010
Three employees were killed and a contractor was injured when a spark or hot-spot from a malfunctioning metal blender ignited the zirconium powder inside. The powder formed a burning cloud of metal dust, which ignited and caused a secondary explosion. Johnnie Banks, an investigator from the CSB, explained: “As the metals were broken down during milling, the risk of a metal dust fire or explosion increased as the metal particles decreased in size.” This was the third fatal fire and explosion involving metal dust that the company has had since 1995.
Pharmaceutical device manufacturing
West Pharmaceutical Services – Kinston, North Carolina – January 29, 2003
In January 2003, six workers were killed and 38 others were injured in a devastating explosion at West Pharmaceutical Services. The plant manufactured rubber components for the medical industry, and the byproduct dust gradually built up on ceiling tiles, beams, conduits, and light fixtures, eventually sparking an explosion. A CSB investigation determined four root causes of the incident, including inadequate engineering assessment for combustible powders.
Babine Forest Products – Burns Lake, British Columbia – January 20, 2012
On the evening of Jan. 20, 2012, the fire alarm at Babine Forest Products started sounding, but not all workers heard it. Shortly thereafter a fireball shot through the roof of the mill, completely destroying the facility. Two workers were killed and more than 20 were injured. Nearly six years later, WorkSafeBC upheld a decision to impose more than $1 million worth of penalties against the company.
These examples show how ubiquitous combustible dust is in manufacturing and industrial processing facilities. The hazard has claimed many lives and cost many companies huge amounts of money (not to mention their reputation). But, remember, combustible dust fires and explosions are 100% preventable. Visit our combustible dust resource center to learn how to prevent incidents like these from happening in your facility.