Monday, March 24, 2008

Quaker Oats Blows It's Top

Around sunrise as hearty Iowans were beginning their workday with the freezing and brisk morning commute in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa a dust explosion rocked the eight floor of the prominent Quaker Oats facility, which has been a landmark on the east bank on the Cedar River for over a century.

Luckily no injuries occurred and it only brought back a brief stark reminder of a catastrophic dust explosion that occurred in Cedar Rapids, nearly a century ago on May 19, 1919 at the Douglas Starch Works, where a dust explosion leveled the building causing 48 fatalities. Prior to 1899 George Douglas was a partner with the principles of North Star Milling, the predecessor of Quaker Oats founded in 1873.

Smiley Face

The familiar friendly face on that red, white, and blue Quaker Oats box in our cupboard has a rich history and there is nothing happier in the morning than crunching on a bowl of Cap”n Crunch (Quaker Oats product) to get the day started. The risks involved in getting the thousands of happy faces started in the morning are another story.

Handling food products in the manufacturing process produces inherent dangers with the seemingly harmless combustible dusts that are generated in the workplace. So who would have thought something as harmless as sugar, like earlier last month at Imperial Sugar in Georgia, would have the explosive power of another 9/11?

City-State Not Immune

Iowa has not been immune to these dangers as there have been over a dozen dust explosions over the last twenty years in the state according to the 2006 Chemical Safety Board’s Combustible Dust Hazard Investigation. Since 1991, in Cedar Rapids, there have been six dust explosions at wet corn milling, starch, bakery mix, cereal, and animal by-product plants. Luckily, no injuries just a lot of broken glass and rattled nerves and time to think more about prevention in the future.

Cause’s and ignition sources range from fires, spontaneous combustion, sparks, hot metal, and unknown. Over half of dust explosions never end up in a determination of causes due to the destruction that is wracked on the facility. Yet static electricity would be a good place to start. Are the workers wearing anti-static clothing in addition to anti-static floor covering as found in many hospitals in preventing potential explosions?

Voluntary OSHA Compliance

Voluntary measures of anti-static clothing only go so far in prevention as it is not required at facilities that generate combustible dusts. Additionally the operating costs for companies would be exorbitant in the investment of anti-static flooring coverings, which would fiercely eat into quarterly earnings statements.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to voluntary standards that the National Fire Protection Association lists in their numerous fire codes in handling metal, food, plastics, rubber, coal, wood, and other combustible particulate solids that generate combustible dusts. For instance, there are many more issues in contrast to explosion prevention which leads to explosion mitigation and covers ventilation, isolation, and suppression of dust explosions in milliseconds.

Myth or Dream

That’s where the real big bucks enter into the picture. Think of it as an entire industry rising from the ashes like the mythological Phoenix where a cottage industry of explosion protection devices is installed at all facilities generating combustible dusts and the idea of a future dust explosion would be decreased immensely. But that is only a dream such as a myth.

Threat From Within

Since the Homeland Security Act was passed in 2002, billions of dollars have been spent by government and industry in providing protection from outside threats. But what about protection from inside the nation where worker fatalities, injuries, and devastating economic impact occurs on a regular basis?

A major concern is that the Occupational Health and Safety Act was passed nearly four decades ago and it has yet to live up to the lofty goals of aggressively attacking the continual occurrence of fatalities and injuries in the workplace. Instead there is a patchwork of voluntary compliance and alliances with industry.

Labor or Industry

This mode of operation was reinforced during the March 12, 2008 hearing at the House Committee of Education and Labor on the HR 5522 "The Combustible Dust Fire and Explosion Prevention Act of 2008.” Where industry and business through the voice of the powerful and omnipresent U.S, Chamber of Commerce, the world's largest not-for-profit business federation, representing 3,000,000 businesses reiterated their position that a OSHA comprehensive dust standard is not a viable action.

Until an OSHA comprehensive combustible dust standard in the protection of workers and the workplace is instituted more preventable and predictable dust explosions and fires will occur. Since the catastrophic explosion at Imperial Sugar six weeks ago resulting in 13 fatalities there has been nearly two dozen additional combustible dust incidents. Maybe the dust explosion at Quaker Oats will be wake up call for immediate action as the kindred spirits Douglas Starch Works and Imperial Sugar look on.


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