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If you’re like most people, when you think of the dust at your job you’re thinking about how you can avoid getting sick from breathing it in.  It’s not likely you’re thinking that you could show up for work and lose your life in a dust explosion.  But you could.  In fact, combustible dust explosions resulting from poor housekeeping policies, and improper handling of combustible materials have led to millions of dollars in property damage, worker injuries, and yes…loss of life.  So, what causes dust to explode?

First, let’s start by understanding what causes any type of fire.  According to OSHA all fires need three things, commonly referred to as “the fire triangle”:

  1. Fuel to burn
  2. Oxygen
  3. Ignition source (heat, spark, etc.)

Consider a fireplace as an example.  The wood is the fuel, the air surrounding the logs provides the oxygen, and the ignition source is the match you use to light the wood.

But for dust to explode two additional elements must be present and when they are that’s referred to as “the dust pentagon”

  1. Dispersion of dust particles in the right concentration, and
  2. Confinement of the dust cloud.

Dispersion means the dust particles are suspended in air. Confinement means the dust is in an enclosed or limited space. This restriction allows pressure to build up, increasing the likelihood of an explosion.

how do dust explosions happen

What is Combustible Dust?

The vast majority of natural and synthetic organic materials, as well as some metals, can form combustible dust. The NFPA’s Industrial Fire Hazards Handbook states, “any industrial process that reduces a combustible material and some normally noncombustible materials to a finely divided state presents a potential for a serious fire or explosion.”

Things you would not think would explode do. Combustible dust can be formed by any fine material when mixed with air.  For a detailed list of materials see our guide 101 Things That Explode.

According to OSHA, some materials that are not combustible on their own become explosive if the particles are the right size and in the right concentration. Therefore we suggest you evaluate your process to determine if your facility is at risk.  If you need help with this process please feel free to give us a call.

Where Does Combustible Dust Gather?

Dust can collect on surfaces such as rafters, roofs, suspended ceilings, ducts, crevices, dust collectors, and other equipment. When the dust is disturbed and under certain circumstances, there is the potential for a serious explosion to occur. The build-up of even a very small amount of dust can cause serious damage.

What Industries Are at Risk?

The short answer to the question is…lots.  The long answer is combustible dust explosion hazards exist in a variety of industries, including:

  • Agriculture
  • Chemicals
  • Food (e.g., candy, sugar, spice, starch, flour, feed)
  • Grain elevators, bins and silos
  • Fertilizer
  • Tobacco
  • Plastics
  • Woodworking facilities
  • Furniture
  • Paper
  • Tire and rubber manufacturing
  • Textiles
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Metal powder processing or storage (especially magnesium and aluminum)

Checkout this video of our combustible dust removal service performed at Viking Yacht Company.

Dusts are created when materials are transported, handled, processed, polished, ground and shaped. Dusts are also created by abrasive blasting, cutting, crushing, mixing, sifting or screening dry materials. The buildup of dried residue from the processing of wet materials can also generate dusts. Essentially, any workplace that generates dust is potentially at risk.

Please give us a call if you have further questions about your facility.