Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Take More Action to Prevent Dust Explosions

Recently I spoke about the need for effective winterization programs to prevent dangerous failures of process piping and equipment. But there’s another kind of hazard that appears to be particularly acute during the winter months: combustible dust. I call on industry to take this hazard seriously – during the winter months and throughout the year. And I urge the incoming leadership at OSHA to act upon the CSB’s recommendations from 2006 to develop a comprehensive regulatory standard for combustible dust. Of eight catastrophic dust explosions since 1995, all but one occurred during cold weather months. Four disastrous dust explosions occurred during the month of February alone. According to experts, low humidity levels in winter can make dust particularly easy to disperse and ignite. And this danger is not one to overlook: since the CSB was established in 1998, three of the four deadliest accidents that we have investigated have been combustible dust explosions. These accidents struck suddenly at major manufacturing sites in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Georgia, and they caused horrible human suffering. A total of 27 workers lost their lives, and scores of others were injured. A number suffered severe burn injuries that left them terribly disfigured or unable to work. All three plants were devastated and needed to be completely rebuilt at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. The tragic thing about dust explosions is that they are readily preventable. The key is to avoid accumulations of combustible dust – particularly on elevated or hard-to-clean elevated surfaces. The National Fire Protection Association warns that even 1/32” of an inch of accumulated dust can give rise to an explosion. That’s about the thickness of a dime. Many common solids – like sugar, flour, coal, aluminum, and most plastics and organic chemicals – can pose a dust explosion risk. This is an insidious danger, and it doesn’t take much dust to destroy a facility. So companies that handle or process these materials in powdered form need to be extremely vigilant. NFPA fire codes contain a wealth of knowledge on how to prevent dust explosions. But too often, companies are unaware of the danger and they fail to implement these longstanding safety practices. All four of the dust explosions that the CSB investigated likely would not have happened if the companies had followed NFPA recommendations. Despite the efforts of NFPA, OSHA, the Chemical Safety Board, and many others, serious dust explosions and fires continue to occur. As CSB chairman, my commitment is do everything possible to make these tragedies a thing of the past. Stronger, clearer regulations and more robust safety programs in industry will prevent most dust explosions – and save lives.