Prevent Combustible Dust Hazards with Good Housekeeping

By Roy Maurer Jan 26, 2015
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) concluded in a report released Jan. 15, 2015, that combustible dust spontaneously ignited and caused an explosion in a manufacturing plant in 2012, burning seven workers. The report said that the U.S. Ink plant in East Rutherford, N.J., failed to perform a “thorough hazard analysis,” and that the installation of the dust collection system was flawed, allowing dust and sludge to accumulate inside air ducts. The dust-collecting “housekeeping” measure was poorly designed and “doomed to be plugged within days of startup,” according to the CSB.The agency has long recommended that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issue a national general industry combustible dust standard.“In U.S. Ink’s case and thousands of other facilities with combustible dust, an OSHA standard would likely have required compliance with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) codes that speak directly to such critical factors as dust containment and collection, hazard analysis, testing, ventilation, air flow and fire suppression,” said CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, in a statement. “A national combustible dust standard would include requirements to conform to what are now largely voluntary industry guidelines and would go far in preventing these dust explosions.”Fires and explosions fueled by combustible dusts have long been recognized as a major industrial hazard. Since 2007, OSHA has focused on facilities that generate or handle combustible dust, as part of its Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program.Although there is no statutory definition of “combustible dust,” nor a standard method for sampling dust to determine its combustibility, OSHA has defined the hazard as “all combustible particulate solids of any size, shape or chemical composition that could present a fire or deflagration hazard when suspended in air or other oxidizing medium.”Combustible dust hazards can arise in a wide range of industries and processes. Materials that may form combustible dust include metals (such as aluminum and magnesium), wood, coal, plastics, biosolids, sugar, paper, soap and certain textiles. If dust is suspended in air in the right concentration and in an enclosed space, it can explode. Employers and employees have told OSHA in post-accident reports that they were unaware that a hazard even existed. Awareness, Good Housekeeping EssentialBest practices to avoid dust accumulation include being constantly aware of potential hazards and implementing a good housekeeping program.A thorough hazard assessment is important in identifying and eliminating factors contributing to an explosion, according to OSHA. The agency recommends that employees conduct informal hazard assessments—looking out for dust accumulation— every day on the job. “Workers are the first line of defense in preventing and mitigating fires and explosions. If the people closest to the source of the hazard are trained to recognize and prevent hazards associated with combustible dust in the plant, they can be instrumental in recognizing unsafe conditions, taking preventative action and alerting management,” the agency said.Training staff on best practices for cleaning and removing dust from industrial locations is another best practice for mitigating dust-related problems, according to OSHA. Dust removal can be accomplished by ventilation, extraction and removal systems, dust collection systems, and manual housekeeping. Remember that vacuums and other electrical equipment will need to be sparkproof if used in dusty locations.Other general housekeeping tips include:Never use compressed air, dry sweeping or other cleaning methods that disperse combustible dust into the air.Maintain an effective housekeeping program to prevent or eliminate dust buildup on ledges, ductwork, building framing or other surfaces. Even small accumulations of dust can create a dust explosion.In the absence of an OSHA standard on combustible dust prevention, a good starting point on how to design a safe dust collection system for plant safety managers is NFPA 654, the Standard for the Prevention of Fire and Dust Explosions from the Manufacturing, Processing, and Handling of Combustible Particulate Solids.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

Quick Links:

SHRM Online Safety & Security page

Subscribe to SHRM’s Safety & Security HR e-newsletter


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect