Imagine getting caught in a swirling, spinning, spreading spray of dust so fine that your eye lashes can’t even filter it? Next, add the frightening risk of dust particles that are both blinding and flammable and you have an idea of what it’s like to be caught in a combustible dust explosion.
A recent explosion at Bartlett Grain Company’s North Carolina flour mill underlines grain dust dangers. According to newspaper reports, one man turned the power on, which apparently initiated an explosion resulting in the collapse of several exterior brick walls in a building that houses the early stages of the milling process. One worker was seriously injured. An earlier Bartlett’s explosion killed six workers and left two hospitalized. The company has been cited in the past by OSHA for health and safety violations related to the build-up of combustible grain dust.
Feed and grain trade associations, attorneys, and consultants have their work cut out for them. Why? Because work shut downs caused by combustible dust explosions hurt our economy. And ultimately, workplace safety impacts us all.
Dealing with combustible dust is a complex issue. Because each elevator facility is so different, consultants and other experts must draft location-specific plans to deal with the problem.
Combustible dusts are a hazard at facilities where there are a lot of very small particles. Examples of industries that deal with combustible dust problems include grain processing, sugar refining and paper manufacturing.
From our Great Plains states to British farms and facilities, we talked to dozens of individuals to gain an insider perspective on this industrial challenge.
“The Kansas grain industry takes safety seriously…it’s a top priority. Combustible grain dust hazards are mitigated through several mechanisms. Elevator operators ensure safety through a variety of procedures, from the use of leading technologies and engineering to daily housekeeping procedures. Kansas grain elevators are committed to safety in all operations and have adopted best practices to avoid such hazards,” said President and CEO, Tom Tunnell, Kansas Grain and Feed Association.
What causes combustible dust incidents?
A dust fire erupts when five factors are in place: dust, dispersion of dust, sufficient oxygen, confined space and ignition.
“The dispersion of dust and sufficient oxygen is often a factor of vibration or a shock wave of some sort hitting the facility. The settled dust rises from the floor briefly, and mixes with air (oxygen) to create a combustible condition. If that ignites, it will create another bigger shock wave, raise more dust, and the process continues,” explained agricultural safety consultant Kirk Lloyd.
For several years, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has been urging OSHA to improve combustible dust standards.
On April of 2012, CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso said, "Our 2006 report revealed there is no national regulation that adequately addresses combustible dust explosion hazards in general industry.
The 100+ year old Minnesota Grain and Feed Association gave their view.
“The grain and feed industry has improved its safety record substantially in the last 25 years and we do, in fact, have an industry specific OSHA regulation called the Grain Handling Standard (CFR 1910.272). This standard contains requirements for dust levels, housekeeping, preventive maintenance, on-going employee training, personal protective equipment and much more, which has translated directly to a safer working environment for our over 9000 workers employed in Minnesota grain elevators and feed mills,” said Bob Zelenka, Minnesota Grain & Feed Association.
If your facility has the potential for a combustible dust hazard, you've probably had some general workplace training on the subject. But has that training made you take that danger seriously?