Thursday, May 29, 2008

Where: Combustible Dust Explosions/Fires?

Since the February 7, 2008 Imperial Sugar Refinery combustible dust explosion, over 52 reported combustible dust related explosions and fires have occurred in the United States. The majority of incidents are in rural areas where media exposure is limited and a Google Internet search does not provide an accurate number of the actual occurrences in manufacturing facilities.

Overall Picture
A general picture of incidents in the United States is beginning to develop through research conducted by the Combustible Dust Policy Institute in Santa Fe, Texas, utilizing Google Alerts and RSS feeds. When news reports do not include information whether or not an incident is combustible dust related, then a follow-up telephone call acquiring additional information from the local fire investigator or fire chief is conducted to ensure accuracy of the reporting methodology. Once confirmation is achieved then the incident's geographical location is placed on the Google Combustible Dust Incident Map.

Over 75% of the 52 combustible dust explosions and fires have occurred east of the Mississippi. Further distilling the data, along the Atlantic Seaboard states, stretched from Florida to Maine, over 50% of the incidents have happened . Additionally, in the geographical triangle bordered between the Great Lakes, Appalachian Mountains, and the Mississippi River over 30% of the incidents are taking place.

Geographical Hot Spots
Locating geographical hot spots where combustible dust incidents are occurring more frequently will allow all stakeholders to develop proactive measures in preventing future occurrences and at the same time not misdirecting resources where incidents are not happening. Many states do not have a large manufacturing sector that handle combustible particulate solids, so combustible dust fires and explosions are minuscule if not nonexistent problem in these geographical areas.

Time and Space
It's to early to ascertain whether the OSHA Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program (NEP) has any impact on minimizing combustible dust explosions and fires. Currently there is no reduction in combustible dust explosions and fires and at the present rate, an event is taking place nearly every other day somewhere in the United States. Since the Imperial Sugar Refinery catastrophe, injuries have been minimal and it's only a matter of time, space, and luck running out before more fatalities happen.

Voluntary NEP
Much fanfare and hoopla has surrounded the OSHA Combustible Dust NEP, which has really turned into a Trojan horse sort of placebo. The problem is exacerbated at the state level where 22 States have there own OSHA program and not required to have a Combustible Dust NEP, which is voluntary. For example, North Carolina over the past four months is the leading state with six reported combustible dust explosions and fires and at the same time does not have a combustible dust NEP since it has it's own State OSHA program and not federal. Several other State OSHA programs without the voluntary combustible dust NEP's also lead in combustible dust incidents.

Conclusion
The complex issue of combustible dust explosions and fires is more of a regional and geographical problem rather than a national one. It's only when a catastrophic incident occurs with mass fatalities and injuries that a national consciousness arises but this should not be confused with the heart of the problem and that is the geographic nature of manufacturing facilities in the United States. Limited financial resources in the current economy can best be allocated in the specific hot spots and manufacturing sub-sectors where incidents are happening.

A geographical aspect of the complex combustible dust issue needs to be addressed in the upcoming Senate hearing where the combustible dust bill will be voted on prior to arrival on the President's desk. A combustible dust workplace standard definitely needs to be implemented very soon, yet in an intelligent manner that directs regulatory resources efficiently.

Flare-up Combustible Dust Explosions/Fires

Over the past nine days a multitude of combustible dust related explosions and fires have occurred across eight states on both sides of the Mississippi in a myriad of manufacturing industries. Recent incidents include paper, wood, textile, chemical, and plastic manufacturing sectors.

The equipment involved includes a silo, oven, dryer, electrical panel , external burner, auger, and ductwork. Luckily, injuries have been limited to a burn victim in last week's unfortunate wood fiber silo explosion. Prayers still go out to the family and worker for a speedy recovery.

Overall economic damage is in the tens of thousands of dollars. Over 50% of the incidents are reoccurences with combustible dust as the culprit causing a repeat of a dust fire or explosion. For three days last week there was two combustible dust explosions and fires/day, totaling six incidents in three days.

Hopefully after the rash of 14 combustible dust fires and explosions for the month of May, no additional incidents will occur. So lets all cross our fingers for the next two days and pray that the dragon takes a much needed rest. If it keeps up at this pace, 2008 will accumulate a dismal scorecard of over 160 reported combustible dust fires and explosions.

This is in stark contrast to the average of 12 combustible dust explosions and fires/year that the Chemical Safety Board submitted in their Combustible Dust Hazard study with recommendations to OSHA for the period of 1980-2005, which included 281 incidents.

The problem with only acknowledging 281 incidents, is that over 90% of the complex issue concerning combustible dust has not been recognized by industry, governmental regulatory agencies, trade associations, safety professionals, and state/federal legislators. Until all stakeholders recognize and acknowledge that over 3,000 combustible dust explosions and fires have occurred in the past three decades then an understanding of the depth and breadth of the problem will be absent.

In the meantime incidents will occur throughout the nation's manufacturing industries with the explosive atmospheres generated daily in the workplace without precautionary preventative, mitigative, administrative, and technical control procedures.

 

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