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Industrial Safety

Combustible dust explosions still a problem, CSB says

Agency working to raise awareness in chemical and other industries

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
May 2, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 19

Aerial photo of a burning building with firetrucks spraying water.
Credit: Chemical Safety Board
Fine plastic dust triggered an explosion and fire that ripped through the West Pharmaceutical Services plant in North Carolina in 2003, killing six workers and injuring dozens.

The U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board has begun an informational program directed to industries that potentially have conditions that could lead to a combustible dust explosion. Such conditions could occur in chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities.

The board announced the effort on April 30 in Wisconsin near the scene of a dust accident that killed five workers and injured 14 at a corn processing facility last year. The explosion destroyed most of the plant and killed or injured all 19 workers who were at the plant when the accident occurred.

The likely source of combustible dust at the Didion Milling facility in Cambria was corn dust produced during milling, according to information CSB released in Wisconsin.

Combustible dust comes from many sources, CSB Chairperson Vanesa Sutherland notes, citing chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing, metal and plastics fabrication, food production, and more. Dust from organic or inorganic materials can burn given an ignition source, she says. Dust can cause an explosion when it is dispersed in oxygen or air, confined to a limited space, and ignited.

CSB found that between 1980 and 2005, 281 dust-related accidents killed 120 and injured another 718 workers. Since 2006, CSB has identified an additional 111 dust-related incidents. Of those incidents, CSB investigated five that collectively killed 27 and injured another 61 workers.

In a 2006 study, CSB recommended dust-control regulations as well as industry guidance to elevate recognition of dust’s potential to cause devastating fires and explosions. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration considered issuing regulations but withdrew dust from its regulatory agenda in 2017, citing a lack of resources.

CSB’s informational program will be directed by Sutherland, who is working to address the issue in her outreach efforts with stakeholders, CSB says.


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