Think back to your science lab days when you combined various chemicals to test your hypotheses and see if the reaction you were looking for would come to pass. This was a deliberate attempt to create a chemical reaction. Fast forward: what about working in a manufacturing plant where mere dust combined with other properties could cause imminent and potentially deadly results? Combustible dust is an invisible catastrophe just waiting to happen, and for a reported 2 or 3 workers a day around the world, it already has.
A Recipe for Disaster
Combustible dust is created when materials are transported, handled, processed, polished, grounded and shaped in various ways. In addition, the accumulation of dried residue from the processing of wet materials can cause a combustible dust reaction. These materials include edible and non-edible substances, such as rubber, sugar, chemicals, fertilizer and agricultural materials.
In order for dust to possibly combust, it must have five essential components to create a “perfect storm” for a dangerous dust explosion or fire:
- Fuel, in the form of dust particles
- Dispersionof the fuel in the form of a dust cloud
- Oxygenin the form of air
- Confinementof the dust cloud in the form of a container (e.g., a dust collector)
- A source of ignition
In 2017, Kyle Flicker, a plant worker in Minnesota, had third-degree burns on over 75% of his body and is lucky to be alive after experiencing a terrible exploding rubber dust accident at his job. He had never heard of combustible dust before the near-fatal mishap changed his life forever. Earlier that year, a silo accident involving a silo grain dust explosive at an Indiana Farm went viral. These are the accidents we hear about, but there are combustible dust fires and smaller explosions happening across the country on a daily basis that never make the press. According to data from the Department of Homeland Security’s National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), there were over 500 industrial dust fires or explosions in 2011 alone that could have caused substantial personal or physical damage.
What You Should Know
Unfortunately, the danger of combustible dust is not widely known. Both companies and workers are not always as well versed on the safeguards needed to protect against the perfect particle storm that could spell disaster for industrial facilities. According to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the lack of knowledge is all too common. There are deliberate efforts to reverse this trend through required combustible dust testing, which may be a little-known fact. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 652 requires ALL facilities that process, handle, convey, or manufacture potentially combustible dust to have their dust tested and keep the results on file. This is required even if your type of dust has no history of causing an accident.
In summary, OSHA regulations, awareness trainings and proactive measures, such as regular monitoring of dust levels, and combustible dust removal can go a long way to making sure dust accidents are minimized or eliminated altogether to protect workers, property and processing facilities across the country.