Over that past couple weeks several dust explosions have occurred in facilities throughout the United States. These events mostly go unnoticed by the national media unless there are a multitude of injuries or fatalities like the recent coal-fired energy plant in Wisconsin that sustained a dust explosion in the dust collector, where several contractors sustained burn injuries.
Congressional leaders where quick to respond with a press release after the Wisconsin coal dust explosion with Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), chair of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee, stating that, “ yesterdays accident was just another reminder of the unacceptable risk posed to workers by outdated regulations on combustible dust,”
This knee jerk emotional response to a multi-dimensional problem of dust explosions throughout our nation’s industrial sector where fuel and ignition sources are continually present does not fully address workplace protection measures that already are in place.
National Consensus Standards
For example, We Energies, the facility where the coal dust explosion occurred had already instituted proactive protective measures with national consensus good engineering practices in minimizing the probability and reducing the severity of dust explosion as outlined in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) combustible dust standards. Reading in between the lines of many news accounts the reader will find mention of explosion ventilation panels that vented the harmful overpressure effects of the explosion to safe levels, preventing the duct collector from fragmentating like a hand grenade.
Explosion ventilation panels ensure that after an explosion, life safety, structural integrity, and mission continuity of a facility is maintained. Unfortunately life safety was breached with the burn injuries to the contractors, yet the facility continued functioning in providing electricity to its customers. There is always a risk to workers when handling combustible particulate solids that generate combustible dust in the diverse spectrum of industries and injuries cannot be totally prevented, only minimized as was the case in this incident where fortunately there were no fatalities on site.
Reintroduction Combustible Dust Bill
Most importantly, the protective and mitigative control measures that We Energies utilized in protecting the worker from harm is in the same content of the recently reintroduced congressional bill that was initiated last year following the Imperial Sugar Refinery dust explosion. The Worker Protection Against Combustible Dust Explosions and Fires Act, H.R. 849, will require the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue rules regulating combustible dust in industry. The bill explicitly states that the proposed rules would be based on effective voluntary standards devised by the National Fire Protection Association. Ironically, We Energies are following the rules. So what outdated regulations on combustible dust, is the Congresswoman referring too?
Facilities that sustain dust explosions where injuries and fatalities occur are best served in providing complete transparency to the public, as We Energies has done, in sharing information to the media concerning protective administrative and engineering control measures that have been implemented such as the case with the explosions ventilation panels. Many coal fired electrical energy plants throughout the nation are collectively addressing combustible dust hazards through the PRB Coal Users Group in which We Energies and many other plants are alliance members.
Combustible Dust Industry Awareness
Most recently, several members of this alliance attended the Combustible Dust Hazard Awareness workshop, hosted by the Combustible Dust Policy Institute at the 4th Annual Industrial Fire, Safety, Security Conference in Houston, Texas February 3-6 2009 in the Reliant Center (next to the Astrodome). In addition to understanding how to identify, evaluate, and control combustible dust hazards at a facility, it is equally important after a major incident to provide the media essential information concerning the proactive control measures that were utilized.
Without this information, a negative reaction is likely to occur as is the case with the recent congressional press release that provides the public with an inaccurate depiction of the events. The Combustible Dust Policy Institute, with a diverse knowledge of combustible dust incidents and regulations, can assist all stakeholders when major catastrophic incidents occur in working collectively with public relations personnel in the development of positive proactive post incident media response.
Photo Credit: Enrique Rodriquez-Journal Sentinel
Oak Creek Power Plant expansion
Journal Sentinel- excellent news coverage