Dust Gets Its Due

Industry is placing greater emphasis on addressing combustion hazards.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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The dangers posed by combustible dusts no longer are being swept under the rug. Tougher regulations and greater corporate resolve are making dust hazard management an increasingly important topic for every manufacturing sector including the chemical industry.

Testifying to the topic's popularity, a recent CP webinar on dust control (now available on demand at http://video.webcasts.com/events/putm001/33721/) attracted the second largest attendance of any such event. In it, speakers from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Quincy, Mass., Fike Corporation, Blue Springs, Mo., Chilworth Technology, Plainsboro, N.J., and Camfil Farr APC, Jonesboro, Ark., outlined the key challenges facing the industry today.

The importance of dust management really started to come under regulatory scrutiny in the U.S. in 2003 when the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), Washington, D.C., determined that lack of attention to dust had resulted in explosions at three U.S. manufacturing plants that year. A January fire and explosion at West Pharmaceutical Services, Kinston, N.C., was caused by a fine plastic powder that gathered above a suspended ceiling over a manufacturing area; six workers died and many more were injured. Three weeks later, an accumulation of resin dust from a phenolic binder used in a production area led to a blast that killed seven workers at fiberglass insulation manufacturer CTA Acoustics, Corbin, Ky. Then, aluminum dust was found to be the culprit for an October explosion that killed one person and injured many others at Hayes Lemmerz's aluminum wheel plant in Huntington, Ind.

One recommendation of the subsequent CSB studies was that the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), Washington, D.C., should get more actively involved in combustible dust hazard management. In late 2007, OSHA issued its National Emphasis Program (NEP) on combustible dust.

However, in February 2008, a huge explosion and fire at Imperial Sugar's Port Wentworth refinery, Savannah, Ga., left 14 dead and 38 others seriously injured. The explosion was fueled by massive accumulations of combustible sugar dust throughout the packaging building.

Guy Colonna, division manager of the industrial and chemical engineering department of the NFPA, says he has attended an increasing number of dust-management events like CP's webinar over the last two years. He attributes their popularity to a much greater focus on hazard awareness across all industries and the public following the explosion at Imperial Sugar.

"Earlier incidents during the decade noted and investigated by OSHA and CSB were no less significant in terms of their losses to people and property, but didn't stir everyone the way the Imperial Sugar incident seems to have established a resolve across all affected interests."

He cites data reported by CSB in its November 2006 dust report and similar incident data published by the insurance industry that show explosions and fires involving combustible dusts aren't that rare — about ten incidents per year took place on average from the early 1980s until 2005 in the U.S.

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