A recent wave of deadly flash fires and explosions should prompt companies to improve their combustible-dust practices now and not wait for the federal government to act, the nation’s chemical safety chief warns.
Scores of workers have died and hundreds have been injured in combustible-dust accidents in the five years since the U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration develop standards for facilities that generate combustible dust.
|“I believe that worker safety is a basic human right,” says U.S. Chemical Safety Board chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso.|
It’s time to stop waiting, says Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the CSB, an independent agency that investigates chemical accidents and reports on their causes.
1 plant, 4 deaths, 6 months
Three combustible-dust flash fires, two of them fatal, occurred at a GKN/Hoeganaes plant in Gallatin, TN, between Jan. 31 and May 27 of this year—the deadliest series of such accidents in the CSB’s 13-year history, Moure-Eraso said in a recent statement.
The fires killed four workers and critically injured another at the plant, which produces atomized steel and iron powders.
And yet, even after those deaths, a CSB investigator found “alarming” accumulations of iron dust on the company’s property near the site of the fires, lack of containment around equipment that generates dust, uncontrolled potential ignition sources, and other serious hazards, Moure-Eraso said.
‘Long History of Accidents’
Although Hoeganaes was the immediate target of his remarks, the company’s experience is not unique, Moure-Eraso added.
The safety board “has a long history of investigating incidents in which fine particles of combustible material are lofted into the air, burning violently or even exploding when they come in contact with ever-present ignition sources, such as open flames or electrical sparks,” he said.
Moure-Eraso noted that common materials such as metals, wood, coal, flour, sugar, plastics and certain chemicals and pharmaceuticals become combustible in powdered form.
Fire Protection Standard
He thus recommended that until OSHA acts, Hoeganaes and other companies that generate combustible dust should follow the practices outlined in National Fire Protection Association Standard No. 484 Standard for Combustible Metals (NFPA 484) issued in 2009.
That standard applies to the production, processing, finishing, handling, recycling, storage and use of all metals and alloys that are in a form that is capable of combustion or explosion. It also applies to operations where metal or metal alloys are subjected to processing or finishing operations that produce combustible powder or dust. Those operations include machining, sawing, grinding, buffing and polishing.
OSHA Action Urged in 2006
In 2006, the CSB released a study of combustible dust fires and explosions, which identified 281 incidents from 1980 to 2005 that killed 119 workers in a wide variety of industries and injured more than
The study recommended that OSHA develop new regulations addressing some of the dangers of combustible dust.
The agency did not, and other dust explosions followed, including the catastrophic 2008 blast at the massive Imperial Sugar refinery in Savannah, GA, which killed 14 workers.
A year later, OSHA began working on a rule that is still in its early stages.
“It’s interesting that OSHA issued regulations covering grain dust in the 1980s, resulting in a drastic reduction in farm-silo explosions and deaths,” Moure-Eraso said. “I am confident that action by OSHA on combustible dust also will save many lives.”
Still, he adds, employers should not wait for new rules to act. “Combustible dust is an insidious workplace hazard when it accumulates on surfaces, especially elevated surfaces,” he said. “Since the CSB was established in 1998, three of the four deadliest accidents we have investigated were determined to be combustible-dust explosions.”