Nico Franz | PIXABAY

Dec 31, 2022

Agriculture industry tops combustible dust incident report

Fires and explosions are more common in ag, but injuries and deaths are less than in other industries.

Feed manufacturing and grain handling facility managers know that managing combustible dust hazards is one of their key duties. But the prevalence of combustible dust incidents can be a mystery.

Dust Safety Science gathers worldwide reports of combustible dust incidents and analysis the data for information to create a better understanding of where incidents are happening and why.

Dust Safety Science's 2021 Combustible Dust Incident Report revealed though things are improving, a great deal of work needs to be done to reach the organization's goal of at least one year with zero fatalities from combustible dust explosions by 2038.

Dust Safety Science verified 163 fires, 53 explosions, 215 injuries and 69 fatalities worldwide in 2021. The U.S. accounted for 98 fires, 20 explosions, 26 injuries and two fatalities.

Facilities handling wood and food products made up 75% of the fires and explosions but only 23% of injuries and fatalities. Coal accounted for 53% of the injuries and 87% of the fatalities recorded.

Dr. Chris Cloney (PEng.), managing director and lead researcher at DustEx Research and Dust Safety Science's founder, is the first to admit that those numbers are not a complete picture of combustible dust incidents worldwide.

In episode 187 of the Dust Safety Science Podcast that he hosts, Cloney talks about how most combustible dust incidents are never reported or miss-reported, leaving large gaps in the available data. But the available data paints a picture when analyzed against the past five years of incident reports.

Small facilities struggle with dust hazard control

Cloney recognizes that one of the largest challenges in reducing combustible dust incidents comes from smaller companies and facilities.

"We've seen challenges with small operations, both the resources needed to perform a dust hazard analysis or do combustible dust testing," says Cloney. "Then also considering it, those small facilities are the exact same ones that we see time and time again, coming up with large loss instances in the incident reporting as well."

Finding ways for small businesses and facilities to create and implement effective combustible dust safety plans is a challenge for the industry, domestically and internationally. Bringing these companies along will be critical in reducing the impact of combustible dust incidents.

"We've seen there's a tremendous amount of loss and upheaval when an incident happens," says Cloney. "It can be the family involved, certainly the individuals involved, but also the community, the industries in that area supply chain, ports can be shut down, parts for different types of systems can no longer be provided both locally and across the globe."

Insufficient combustible dust incident reporting

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Dust Safety Science is the lack of reliable reporting on combustible dust explosions both in the United States and internationally. Most combustible dust events are not reported unless they cause a serious incident that receives news coverage. Many incidents initially reported to involve combustible dust are later determined to have another cause. Still, by the time the true cause is determined, news coverage has already moved on from the story.

"This makes the estimating of error when we're performing quantitative analysis of the data really difficult," says Cloney. "It (the Combustible Dust Incident report) has an average of 30 explosions in the U.S. every year. But what is the error? What are we not capturing there? Because we're only getting a small slice of what's actually happening. The big point here is that the trends observed can't really be compared to each other all that well."

Cloney also notes that the U.S. is overrepresented in the report. Language, lack of news coverage, different regulations, and reporting requirements make gathering reports from many parts of the world more difficult than in the U.S.

Combustible dust incidents in agriculture, food processing and ethanol

Agriculture and food products have been the category with the most combustible dust incidents every year. Dust Safety Science has published the report. The 2021 report shows that 48.1% of incidents involved agriculture and food products, slightly below last year's 50% but above the five-year average. Luckily, most of the incidents reported were fires and explosions, not injuries and fatalities.

The same can be said about the U.S. numbers overall. Despite over 60% of the verified fires and 37% of the explosions taking place in the U.S., only 16% of the injuries and a single death occurred here. However, any amount is too high.

When broken down into more specific categories, agriculture was responsible for 36.6% of events, food processing for 11.6% and ethanol for 2.3% of incidents.

Storage silos create the most combustible dust incidents

One area of the Combustible Dust Incident Report that Cloney finds interesting is that the collected data contradicts a report U.S. Chemical Safety Board on how often dust collection systems cause combustible dust incidents.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board data, Combustible Dust Hazard Study that they released in 2006, suggested that up to 40% of the incidents involved dust collection systems, said Cloney.

"At that time, there was sort of a general understanding industry that these are the most problematic areas for combustible dust in terms of where you may see a primary explosion, or a secondary explosion coming from somewhere else in the facility but involving in the dust collection system," he explained.

"There's a really big focus on dust collectors," he continued. "Since the last three years of the incident reporting, we're really seeing that the dust collection systems are playing a lesser role, we're still seeing explosions, and we're still seeing injuries and fatalities happen. But they're playing a lesser role than other pieces of equipment, in particular silos, hoppers and other types of storage equipment."

In 2021, the highest percentage of incidents started in storage silos, 21.3%. The next highest category was "No Details" at 19.4%, followed by dryers at 15.7%.

Combustible dust incidents need detailed analysis and follow up

Combustible dust incidents are scary and wildly misunderstood by the public.

Cloney has found that in many incidents where combustible is blamed as being the cause of an incident, further investigation reveals a different cause.

After an explosion on February 25, 2021, at Stars Engrg in Tuas, Singapore, was thought to be caused by potato starch used in the manufacturing process at the facility, the public demanded action from their government.

"There was a big push within Singapore after this incident," says Cloney. "Which unfortunately cost the lives of three workers and injured seven more, but there's a big push to put a regulation in place for combustible dust. There was a big push to educate workers. There's a big push to perform inspections of facilities that were deemed high risk in terms of handling combustible dust.

"Then, once you got to the point of reading the report, what is kind of interesting is they found that the potato starch was actually a secondary factor for this incident that occurred and that it played a lesser role in the injuries and fatalities than they would have originally thought."

Public reaction to initial reports of combustible dust incidents may lead to reactionary regulation and unfair burdens placed on industries that produce combustible dust hazards.

In situations like that, the work of Dust Safety Science becomes even more important. We cannot properly control combustible dust hazards if we do not understand where and why they occur.

Steven Kilger

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