Some of the most devasting plant and refinery explosions in recent history were fueled by combustible dust.
What many don’t realize is that industrial dust is significantly more dangerous than the dust commonly found in our homes. When not adequately controlled and contained, the combustible dust typically present at industrial plants and refineries can ignite in an instant, leading to a massive explosion, severe and debilitating injuries, and widespread property damage.
What is Combustible Dust?
The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) defines combustible dust as “a solid material composed of distinct particles or pieces, regardless of size, shape, or chemical composition, which presents a fire or deflagration hazard when suspended in air or some other oxidizing medium over a range of concentrations.”
Combustible dust can be a byproduct of organic materials like sugar or flour, certain metals, and some nonmetallic inorganic materials. It’s typically produced when:
- Materials are transported, handled, processed, polished, ground, and shaped.
- Dry materials are subjected to abrasive blasting, cutting, crushing, mixing, sifting, or screening dry material.
- The buildup of dried residue results from the processing of wet materials.
How Common are Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires?
According to a recent report from Dust Safety Science, more than 1,000 incidents involving combustible dust were reported worldwide in 2020 alone. From 2016 through 2020, the United States averaged close to 30 combustible dust explosions per year, resulting in an average of 26 injuries and nearly three deaths annually.
Dust generated by food products caused almost half of the combustible dust incidents reported in 2020, while wood products accounted for nearly 28%. Metal dust was cited in 7.6% of incidents, and the source remained unknown in 7.1%.
Because these types of explosions and fires usually occur abruptly and with little warning, it’s almost impossible for nearby workers to escape unharmed. To make matters even worse, dust-related disasters often occur in enclosed areas without adequate ventilation and limited pathways for exiting the facility.
The Worst Combustible Dust Explosions in Recent History
Combustible dust explosions and fires have injured and tragically killed over 500 plant and refinery workers across the United States in the past 10 years alone.
West Pharmaceutical Services Explosion, North Carolina
An explosion and fire fueled by fine plastic powder killed six workers, injured dozens of others, and destroyed the West Pharmaceutical Services plant in Kinston, North Carolina, on January 29, 2003.
The facility produced rubber stoppers and other products for medical use. According to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), the powder had accumulated on a ceiling above a manufacturing area before it ignited.
Imperial Sugar Refinery Explosion, Georgia
In addition to killing 14 workers on February 7, 2008, the Imperial Sugar explosion in Wentworth, Georgia, left 38 people injured, including many who sustained life-threatening burns. The CSB later determined that “massive accumulations” of sugar dust provided fuel for the catastrophic blast.
Our Undefeated Plant Explosion Lawyers successfully represented 56 workers who were seriously burned in the Imperial Sugar refinery explosion. The settlement was the largest in Imperial Sugar’s history.
AL Solutions Explosion, West Virginia
On December 9, 2010, a spark ignited the zirconium powder inside a malfunctioning metal blender at the AL Solutions plant in New Cumberland, West Virginia. The powder formed a burning cloud of dust that triggered a secondary explosion.
Three workers were tragically killed, and a contractor was injured in the company’s third fatal incident involving combustible dust since 1995.
Hoeganaes Corporation Flash Fires, Tennessee
Three iron-dust flash fires occurred at the Hoeganaes Corporation’s atomized steel and iron powder facility in Gallatin, Tennessee, between January 29, 2011, and May 27, 2011. A total of five people were killed, and three were injured in connection with those incidents.
According to the CSB, dust collecting overhead on beams and ledges, significant quantities of iron dust escaping from equipment, and an unreliable dust collection system contributed to the fires.
U.S. Ink Plant Fire, New Jersey
On October 9, 2012, a poorly designed dust collection system led to a flash fire that burned seven workers at the U.S. Ink plant in East Rutherford, New Jersey. That system had only been installed four days earlier, but the company failed to ensure the equipment was operating properly.
According to CSB investigators, “the system was so flawed it only took a day to accumulate enough combustible dust and hydrocarbons in the ductwork to overheat, ignite spontaneously, cause an explosion in the rooftop dust collector, and send back a fiery flash.”
Powderpart Explosion, Massachusetts
An employee at the Powderpart, Inc. 3D printing plant in Woburn, Massachusetts, suffered third-degree burns following an explosion on November 5, 2013.
After determining that the company had failed to protect workers from explosion and fire hazards associated with combustible titanium and aluminum alloy powders, OSHA fined Powderpart $64,400 for one willful and nine serious workplace safety violations.
“Just as it’s easier to start a campfire with kindling than with logs, it’s easier for a metal fire to start when you’re working with metal powder that is as fine as confectioners’ sugar,” Jeffrey Erskine, OSHA’s director for the area, said at the time.
Nestle Purina Petcare Explosion, Arizona
Four people performing welding work were burned when grain dust ignited at a Nestle Purina PetCare plant in Flagstaff, Arizona, on September 14, 2014.
A state OSHA inspection found that the company failed to properly clean and prepare the grain elevator before the contractors began work, initially resulting in a $5,000 fine. However, Nestle ultimately paid just $3,500.
Didion Milling Explosion, Wisconsin
An explosion at the Didion Milling plant in Cambria, Wisconsin, on May 31, 2017, killed five workers and injured 12 others, including a 21-year-old man who suffered a double leg amputation after being crushed by a railcar.
The subsequent OSHA investigation found that the explosion likely resulted from Didion’s failures to correct the leakage and accumulation of highly combustible grain dust throughout the plant and properly maintain equipment to control ignition sources.
“Didion Milling could have prevented this tragedy if it had addressed hazards that are well-known in this industry,” OSHA regional administrator Ken Nishiyama Atha said at the time. “Instead, their disregard for the law led to an explosion that claimed the lives of workers, and heartbreak for their families and the community.
Combustible Dust Explosions are Preventable
Combustible dust explosions and fires are preventable and usually the result of a failure to comply with safety procedures that are designed to prevent this well-recognized hazard. And while it’s true that OSHA has yet to enact any standards to specifically address dust hazards, the absence of an official standard does not relieve plant and refinery operators of their duty to make the workplace safe and protect workers from dust-related explosions and fires.
Following the Imperial Sugar explosion in 2008, in which our Plant Explosion Lawyers successfully represented over 50 injured workers, OSHA established the Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program (NEP), a set of guidelines for inspectors to follow at facilities where combustible dust could be present.
Although NEP standards vary depending on the specific type of dust present, they generally focus on three areas:
- Employers should make every effort to contain dust within process equipment.
- A dust collection system should be utilized to capture any uncontained dust at the point of release.
- Any dust not contained or captured should be cleaned up so as not to pose a hazard.
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