In February 2008, an explosion and fire occurred at the Imperial Sugar refinery outside of Savannah, Georgia. The industrial accident caused a total of 14 deaths and 36 injuries, some of which were serious and even life-threatening. A subsequent investigation revealed that the accident was caused by the accumulation of combustible sugar dust throughout the building. This combustible dust had ignited, causing the explosions and fire. After this incident, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) promised to set out new guidelines and regulations concerning how this material was to be handled. Such regulations did not materialize.
Now, a recent accident at a Nebraska feed mill has placed renewed attention on OSHA’s delay in creating the rules it promised to create in 2008. Two individuals were injured at the International Nutrition feed plant when part of the roof collapsed. While OSHA has not officially concluded its investigation into the cause of the collapse (OSHA has indicated such an investigation could take several months), survivors of the accident reported seeing a fireball just before the collapse. This raises the possibility, at least, that the accident may have been caused by the accumulation of combustible grain dust. This incident has placed pressure on OSHA to finish the rules it promised to promulgate after the 2008 explosion. OSHA has indicated such rules are still likely years away from being completed.
The Danger of Combustible Dust
“Combustible dust” is technically defined as “any finely divided solid material that is 420 microns or smaller in diameter and presents a fire or explosion hazard when dispersed and ignited in air.” A total of five elements – representing the “explosion pentagon” – are needed for a combustible dust explosion: (1) combustible dust; (2) an ignition source or heat; (3) oxygen in the air; (4) a sufficient quantity and concentration of dust particles; and (5) confinement of the dust particles. A combustible dust fire can occur when just the first three elements are present (what is commonly known as the “fire triangle”). As the incidents in Georgia and Nebraska illustrate, these explosions and fires can happen with little warning and can quickly spread from area to area, so long as there are concentrations of combustible dust present.
Preventing Combustible Dust Accidents
Despite OSHA’s delay in setting out new rules that reflect the information gained from recent investigations, OSHA has provided employers with suggestions on preventing these sorts of incidents. For instance, the escape of dust from equipment and ventilation systems should be controlled as much as possible. Any observable dust should be regularly cleaned using vacuum cleaners or other products approved for dust collection. Open flames, sparks, and smoking should be controlled and any dust should be kept away from heated surfaces, heated systems, and sources of static electricity.
In addition, employers should take the time to properly train employees in the hazards of combustible dust. Employees should be informed whether their workplace contains any combustible dusts and safety procedures should be put in place by the employer to minimize the chance of any fire or explosion.
If you or a loved one has been injured in a Combustible Dust Accident, compensation may be available to assist with medical expenses and treatment costs as well as other losses. Contact us today at (508) 755-7535 for a free consultation.