The dangers of dust: A workplace hazard that often goes overlooked

When improperly contained, combustible dust can become a ticking time bomb, threatening the lives and livelihood of industrial workers.

Many workers' compensation claims in Michigan involve industrial workers. That's no surprise, given that industrial jobs involve many hazards, from toxic chemicals to heavy equipment to powerful machinery.

Yet another potential cause of devastating accidents often goes overlooked: combustible dust. The combination of flammable particles, oxygen and an ignition source is a recipe for disaster.

Understanding the risks

Flammable dust is present in virtually every type of industrial work environment, including:

  • Automotive facilities
  • Food processing facilities
  • Metalworking and processing plants
  • Wood processing and woodworking plants
  • Recycling plants
  • Factories and manufacturing facilities
  • Refineries
  • Chemical manufacturing facilities
  • Power plants
  • Furniture and textiles plants
  • Pharmaceutical plants

Between 1980 and 2006, more than 800 workers were injured or killed in dust-related fires and explosions, according to a study by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

How exactly do these tragedies happen? They typically follow a predictable pattern:

  • Dust produced by cutting, grinding or processing equipment begins to accumulate in nooks and crannies, or even along vertical spaces such as walls and vents.
  • Dust collection and storage devices - such as dumpsters, containers and silos - may be poorly maintained or rarely inspected, resulting in leaks.
  • The countless heat and electrical sources present in industrial environments can cause the dust to ignite without warning.
  • When the dust is dispersed into a concentrated cloud, the result is often a flash fire - a deflagration that quickly engulfs large areas and spreads rapidly.
  • Confined spaces cause the pressure to build, leading to explosions.
  • A primary explosion disperses more dust and other flammable materials and vapors, triggering a chain reaction of secondary explosions that can be even deadlier than the first.

Any combustible material can become a fire hazard in dust form. So, too, can materials that aren't typically flammable, such as aluminum, zinc, rubbers and resins.

Preventing fires and explosions

Far too many employers fail to appreciate the danger of combustible dust. Although the National Fire Protection Association publishes voluntary guidelines for reducing the risk of dust-related fires and explosions, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has yet to promulgate general industry-wide standards that are binding on employers. The agency will be holding public hearings this summer to address this lack of standards.

In the meantime, employers and industrial workers alike can take proactive steps to reduce the risks of combustible dust by:

  • Identifying and securing potential ignition sources
  • Maintaining safe electrical systems and taking steps to reduce friction and static electricity in dusty areas
  • Installing relief vents, isolation devices, oxygen-reduction systems and other explosion suppression systems
  • Adopting procedures to minimize the accumulation of dust and prevent the formation of dust clouds
  • Regularly inspecting dust containment systems to detect any spills or leaks

With the lives of industrial workers on the line, it's never too soon to adopt better safety measures.