Podcast: Dust Explosion Awareness Ebbs and Flows

Podcast: Dust Explosion Awareness Ebbs and Flows

July 10, 2024
Keeping major incidents like Imperial Sugar and Didion Milling top of mind will help save lives.

In this guest podcast episode from our sister publication Processing, Senior Editor Nate Todd interviews Chris Cloney of Dust Safety Science. In this episode, we discover that awareness of dust hazards varies globally, often spiking after major incidents but waning over time. The company tracks dust-related incidents annually, noting significant events like the 2023 grain silo explosion in Brazil. Common hazards involve grain, wood and metal dusts, with equipment like dust collectors and silos frequently implicated. Emerging industries like 3D printing and robotics present new challenges. Dust Safety Science emphasizes ongoing education and risk assessment to prevent future incidents.


Hi, I'm Nate Todd, senior editor of Processing and I'm joined today by Chris Cloney, managing director and lead researcher at Dust Safety Science. Thanks for speaking with me today, Chris.

Chris: Thanks, Nate. Appreciate you having me on the podcast.

Nate: Of course, what does dust safety science do? And who are you trying to reach?

Chris: So we started in 2018 on the back end of my academic research and dust explosion. And came up with this sort of mission of having at least one year worldwide with zero deaths from dust explosions by 2038. And since that time we had a team of one that was just me. Now up to a team of five of us creating material online discussion resources for folks, running events, running marketplaces and connection platforms, all trying to help people around this issue of combustible dust. We started through with communication. We run our own podcast safety science now for going on five years, 280 episodes or so, all on combustible dust, if you can imagine podcasts only on that and a number of other platforms around combustible dust, dust state professionals, Dust Safety Academy, an annual event, and more things educational wise around combustible dust.

Combustible Dust Hazard Awareness

Nate: Excellent. Has industry’s awareness of combustible dust hazards increased in recent years? Are there certain industries or countries still lagging behind others in understanding the risks?

Chris: It's interesting, it has and it hasn't, so I'll explain what I mean when I say. That if you live in the United States or Canada, so in North America, you probably would say, hey, it seems to be a little more well known today than it was, you know, five years ago, 10 years ago. That's mostly due to some really large explosions that happened in the mid-2000s. Imperial Sugar followed by West Pharmaceutical followed by Hayes Lemmerz followed by some other incidents that happened back-to-back to back, which drove a lot of activity and drove groups like the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to start releasing and reviewing the incidents that were happening. OSHA got involved with creating standards. NFPA -- National Fire Protection Agency -- increased its suite of standards to address combustible dust, and then a lot of activity has been happening since then, but when I say that it hasn't. This isn't the first time that there's been a huge increase due to large explosions happening in the U.S., and it usually lasts about 20 years before it starts to come down again, which is kind of interesting because we're at that 20-year mark. So in the 1880s, 1890s, there was a bunch of coal mine explosions led to a really intense research effort in coal dust, by the 1920s that was almost forgotten. In the 1920s, there was a big uptick in grain food processing, general industry, metal, rubber, aluminum, all things we talked about today. And there was a big kickoff by the insurance within North America, to create standards to tackle these challenges, they worked with NFPA in the first standard on sugar dust was actually created in 1922 and said things like keep the dust collector outside, avoid hot bearings, avoid ignition sources, put the milling equipment in separate rooms and all sorts of same things that you'd see if you read through NFPA standards today. That was way back in the 1920s. In the 1970s we had a number of grain dust explosions over Christmas. I think in ‘78 or ‘79. Maybe 11 or 12 large-scale grain dust explosions that year that fatally injured 60 or 80 workers, which caused the grain elevator standard in the U.S. to be developed by OSHA. And then all that was basically forgotten by the 2000s. You didn't hear anyone talking about combustible dust. You know, there were a couple, we'll say old timers that have been around that said, yeah, those grain silos, you know, we had some issues with. Those but not an issue anymore. Rubber, aluminum, pharmaceutical manufacturing, sugar. Imperial Sugar was the large explosion that kind of kicked off this most recent renaissance. Almost completely forgotten, even though there was a standard written in 1920 on how to protect from sugar dust explosions and cocoa dust explosions. Academic textbooks and all this. And then, so that's why I say when it it is you, if you locally looked at this most recent renaissance, you would say there is a lot more activity, there's a lot more awareness and out there my worry and why I appreciate you having me on the podcast and the work that Processing is doing is that we're at that 20-year mark where we're, historically speaking, we would just start to forget. So if I can talk about it enough, if the other experts that we work with can talk about enough and keep that information flowing, then maybe we can avoid forgetting over time. And the the last caveat I'll put in here is that it's very country by country, so in the U.S. you'll hear a lot about grain dust explosions, things like Didion Milling, which is a pretty recent dust explosion in Cambria, Wisconsin, over the last five years that that fatally injured a number of workers. In Canada, very big focus on wood because in 2012 we had very large wood dust explosions in British Columbia. In Taiwan, you see big folks on plastics because they had some large plastic dust explosions. In Brazil, they have grain because we'll talk about some of the incidents that they had last year big focus on grain dust right now. And in the UK wood because of a big wood mill explosion in the UK, Bosley, Bosley Mill. That's the name of it. A few years ago, which caused a lot of, you know, activity. Pakistan large coal dust explosions over the last couple of years with the growth of power generation through coal there. China, lots of large metal dust explosions because they're creating a lot of the products for the world to use in that space. So every country kind of looks at it on what happened in the last 10 years in my space and that's got to be the worst thing possible. And so that awareness sort of increases with each region of the world and my view and why we run Dust Safety Sciences, if we just stopped and looked around, a little more broadly, we'd say, “Oh, that site in the UK looks a lot like that lumber mill in northern Ontario and that you know that grain processing facility in Brazil looks a lot like that terminal that's processing grain” and you know the coast of the U.S. or in the Midwest will say and realize that it it's not because they don't happen, it's that they don't happen frequently enough that each individual region gets exposed to them

Nate: Sure.

Chris: Yeah. So that that's a long winded way of saying yes, we are seeing more of it. I hope we don't start to forget and it's very specific to what country you're looking and just what happened most recently in that country.

Does Geography Matter in Dust Hazards?

Nate: Well, it sounds like the incidents that you mentioned reflect the prevalent industries in those countries, a lot of times.

Chris: That's true too, and that and it makes sense. Well, that's so they do. But I think just because the numbers work out that way, sure, there have been cases where an off, you know, an off-industry explosion will cause a lot of focus. And to kind of put it, to put an example around this, I had a call a few weeks ago. We service hundreds of help desk tickets a year from people asking questions on you know what to do if my pile is smoldering to who do I get to do testing, to finding consultants to do dust hazard analysis work to do explosion protection fire prevention. Cleaning all these sort of things come through the different platforms we run and the same day I had a call with a guy in Vancouver who is a terminal handling coal and he said, “Well, at least we're only handling coal. It's not really dangerous like that sawdust.” Because they had, the same day I was on a Zoom call with a gentleman in Pakistan who was part -- actually was an e-mail help desk question -- who said, “We're only working in a wood mill. Luckily, it's not that dangerous as coal dust, like the power generation plants that exploded last year.” And I'm just thinking in my head, if I could just get these guys to talk, they'd realize both products are equally hazardous, equally likely to ignite and the severity can be devastating in both cases. But because they've both been exposed recently and in their careers to those two types of incidents, that's where their perceptions at.

Dust Hazard Resources

Nate: Sure. So you mentioned your help desk. For companies that are handling combustible dusts, how can they understand the hazards and assess the level of risks in their plants and what educational resources are available to processors?

Chris: Yeah, it's a great question. I would say for the education resources, I mean, we run a number of platforms, Dust Safety Academy is free and there's hundreds of videos and PDF downloads and we just kind of put stuff in there for folks to just share what's available. We do run our podcast and our annual conference. There's training wise if you want to sit down, do like an online course or go to an event, NFPA provides some really good fundamentals of NFPA 652 fundamental of combustible dust training. It's on their NFPA 652 and I think it's called their NFPA 652 training series, which is a really good introduction. It's not real expensive. You kind of want to, you know, to get the front-end awareness piece. We're actually launching a new part of that has just courses that people are putting on, on combustible dust. It's just going to be a list of them. So when people ask us, we can say go there instead of here's the six places that you know might have a course, just have one place where we have a home base for it. So we're working on that. That should be in the next month or so. So that's the education training side. If you're actually trying to understand the hazards at your site, NFPA 652 is going to be a really good reference here, especially if you're in North America, that's the fundamentals of combustible dust. In the next year or so that will be transitioning into NFPA 660, it's having a change in number and they're consolidating. Other standards into 652 but 652 will be the go-to place right now, and that’ll tell you how to identify, how to assess and how to address most dust hazards or at least give you a framework to do that. For identifying the hazard, generally you're looking at testing your combustible dust to know if it is a flammable hazard or exposable hazard. And that document will tell you how to do that or give you a framework to do that. Then you're looking at doing a dust hazard analysis, and then you're looking at actually implementing your controls to prevent and protect from those dust explosion events from happening. All that is to say, it is a pretty specialized field. It would be rare for somebody to know nothing about it, and then do a very good job assessing the hazards. And the reason is the same reason it's brought up. You have somebody knows what they've been exposed to, but they won't know what other sites have been exposed to. So if we, if I trained up that that gentleman in Vancouver and the other one in Pakistan getting the same training material, one is going to think wood dust is really dangerous, the other is going to think that's really dangerous and they're looking at the other sites, then they're just going to automatically kind of just exclude that so. So. It is best to work with professional space to either review your hazard assessments to work with you, to bring in training and hosts of your, to do that, to run mentorship on the reports, or just actually do the DHA. It's generally going to be cheaper to outsource the dust hazard analysis work, at least for one site then it is to try to train and bring somebody up to speed to do a good dust hazard analysis.

We Have Dust Hazards, Now What?

Nate: So then companies have identified they're handling combustible dust, there's likely a hazard. How can they identify experts who can help them during this process, the dust hazard analysis process or even testing material?

Chris: Yeah, both through, which is another website that we run. We have providers all around the world from Australia to North America to Latin America, to Europe, Asia and Africa that do testing and consulting, provide equipment in the space. So that's, that's really the goal of that platform is to make it easier. So I went several years with people asking me all over the place, who's the right company for this or who do you know in my local area and the answer was always I got to look back and figure it out, but that's why we created Dust Safety Professionals was to give folks a platform. They just go and find that information themselves. If you are hiring in the space, going to look for three things you look for experience and combustible dust, you want to look for experience in your industry and you want to look for experience in the methodology of doing risk assessment in your local region. So experience with combustible dust, are they part of committees in this area? Can they show you they've done training? Can they show you other projects they've worked on impossible dust. If you just take somebody, only has industry experience and hasn't been exposed to combustible dust and it can be a challenge. One good question is have you ever seen a dust explosion? You can go on site and with groups and and actually see them. It's probably good for them to see how they can be before they go do risk assessments. So you can kind of get an idea what do they know about combustible dust and you want experience in your industry it's it's not a great idea to have somebody that's only done food and beverage, then go do metal 3D printing. There's different risks that arise with different materials. There's different ignition sources, different considerations, and you really want to understand if they've worked in your industry before, what past clients have worked with, what kind of past jobs and industries, and then third, is the risk methodology. So over here in North America, or at least in the United States, you're typically looking at a dust hazard analysis, which is what is defined in NFPA 652 and you want to understand it, how qualified they are in that space. If you're overseas, you might be looking more at IECeX or other hazard assessment methodologies. British Columbia in Canada, I'm up in Ontario right now, but in in the West Coast of Canada, they're releasing their own standard that requires a risk assessment, which is very similar to NFPA 652 but has some slight differences on how it's handled. So you really want to know what those providers do they have experienced locally in your area to do the right type of assessment so that you're going to meet your compliance against whoever is your authority that's going to require that could be a fire marshal, insurance, whoever's kind of the one that's requiring it. So those are three elements that are generally looking for experiencing in combustible dust experience in the industry that the projects in, and then do they have experience in actually the methodology of doing a risk assessment in that region of the world as well?

Combustible Dust Incident Report

Nate: Since 2016, you've been tracking combustible dust, fires and explosions, and releasing an annual combustible dust incident report that breaks down incidents by industry, material type equipment type involved. Your final report for 2023 hasn't been released yet, but last year seems to have been kind of a bad year for worker injuries and fatalities. What incidents stand out to you as particularly significant from last year?

Chris: Yeah, I pulled up a couple because I'm actually doing the data analysis for our 2023 year-end report. Now we got to wait a couple months to see if any government reports come out or any investigation reports on the incident data. And then we got to analyze it, release the report. Interesting note: We actually didn't see a fatality in the United States last year from combustible dust that we could contribute directly. We're still trying to verify that. If that is true, I think that only be the second year since 1980 that that is the case that there hasn't been any fatalities from combustible dust. I still I'm skeptical because if you go back past 1980, you have to go many, many years before you find another one that doesn't have a death from my understanding. So we are just scouring to see if we can find if there were some cases there. In terms of the rest of the world, though, we have lots of other, you know, large-scale incidents. Coal mines are still a big challenge in parts of the world where there is active coal mining, we have large coal mine fires and explosions in Colombia, China and Kazakhstan last year, all with just taking a look at the data here, yeah, all with, you know, dozens of fatalities or dozens of injuries, rather and high fatality numbers as well. So coal mines are still a big challenge and in 1992, we had a large coal mine explosion about an hour from my hosts in Nova Scotia. And that fatally took the lives of all 22 workers, I believe at the time. So it's amazing to still think that that's still a challenge that's going on today. Otherwise, there are some other big dust explosions that happened last year. One is in Prana, Brazil, and this was at a large grain silo down there on July 27, 2023. Nineteen workers were injured and tragically lost their lives from those injuries, and this has actually caused a big focus on combustible dust in Brazil in, it's spreading into Latin America as well, but there's some groups down there that are now doing a lot of education and we did, we had two presentations at our conference this year, one from Monica Romanzo, the other from Robson I’m not going to be able to Robson's last name. So, Robson, I'll say K, because it's a tongue twister of  name. He's with CV technology and based out of Brazil down there, they both present on the current status of combustible dust in Brazil from the instance that happened and regulations. They're also both part of a group, and I was trying to find the name. I believe it's PCRB. But they're going, actually, I think how many states there are in Brazil, say there's 20, they're going to each state one by one and doing training for firefighters, training for just free available training for industry there and going around to different regions within Brazil. They're calling it Brazil's Imperial Sugar. You want to say that this most recent renaissance in the US was due to Imperial sugar. They're saying this is triggering that type of activity.

Nate: And this is an industry group?

Chris: Yeah, it's an industry group. It's collaboration of a couple of different companies that are that Are doing it? And I can't find there it is PCRS, which stands for some, I would say Portuguese or Spanish names that I don't know. But yeah, if you look up probably the best way is if you look up Monica Remonato at CV Technology on LinkedIn, you can find them there and they'll both be talking about this as they keep doing these training sessions and stuff.

So and a couple more there are, you know a lot of we'll call them smaller incidents, you know, ones where only a couple people are injured or maybe you know one person tragically loses their life. One thing I want to highlight, an injury from a dust explosion is generally not a good injury. Generally you're talking burns and you're talking burn units. And so when we release our report, it's really easy to say, hey, there's these big mega explosions and discount the impact of, you know, a father-son would shop where the son goes out and and opens the dust collectors that got a fire and then gets back backdraft into his face and has, you know, permanent scarring on his face like these. These type of injuries are also quite severe. So we've had this year 3D printing explosions in China. We've had battery storage explosions in Sweden. Of course, grain dust, wood dust  explosions that happen all over the world. And I guess the easiest way for folks to access that if you go to, there will be a way to click on reports. There you can download all the previous year reports and then this one will be available over the next, probably month or six weeks or so.

What Equipment is Most Susceptible to Dust Explosions?

Nate: And you mentioned a different types of equipment, what materials or types of equipment tend to be most frequently involved with combustible dust fires or explosions and why is that?

Chris: If you ask most people, they’re going to say grain and wood, and that's true, but it is, it is regional as well. So you see a lot of grain dust explosions in the U.S. and in and a lot of wood dust explosions in the US as well. You see a lot of wood dust explosions in Canada. Again, like you said, it kind of tracks the industrial activity. In Taiwan, you see major plastic dust explosions, again in Pakistan coal dust. So the material is really, you can kind of scale with GDP if you look at it a bit, you look at a country and say hey, it has,  in the U.S., we see about 30 major dust explosions a year, ones that are big enough to make the local news. In Canada, we see three, and we have one-tenth the GDP. If you go to another country, you can kind of scale it up and it doesn't work perfectly, obviously. Local regulations and things play a role as well, but you can kind of get an idea that way. In terms of equipment, dust collectors have traditionally been the biggest contributor to fires and explosions. If you look back at the Chemical Safety Board's research out of the 2000s, they would state that as well. We're seeing that kind of go down. I don't know if that's due to more, more people getting dust collectors protected. They're always the ones that you know, if you go into hazard assessment, people seem to focus on the dust collector, which is a good thing. But we do see mixers. Silos are a big challenge. You have a fire in the silo trying to put that out without causing explosion is a big challenge. In a lot of cases, this can be first responders who are injured or killed. And that could be falling off ladders, falling off platforms. It could be workers going in trying to use fire extinguishers, getting the dust dispersed when they do that, causing an explosion and through no fault of their own, but just through lack of training and having proper emergency response procedures in place. You get using the wrong fire extinguishers, especially in metal. You can't use any fire extension on metal if you use a lot of metals and fire extinquishers will react very negatively, may cause large explosion, especially magnesium, aluminum. And there are some industries like, yeah, 3D printing, battery power storage and robotics are all contributing to more metal dust explosions because you're handling more metals. Robotics is a big challenge because now something used to be a manual process where, say, you were grinding something was generally in one spot, so you could put dust collection or some protection methodology in place. Now if you got a robot arm that's doing the thing over space, it's how do you how do you track that robot arm. How do you keep the dust levels down, through the space. And things are moving quicker, so those industries get more as well. So yeah, I'd say dust collectors and silos are the biggest ones we see, but certainly you do need to be looking at mixers, any source size reduction, equipment mills. Those are all places where you'll find ignition sources being attributed spray dryers. Just bag dump stations can be a challenge, so yeah, there's quite a few different types of equipment that we're looking at, but generally dust collector, silos, grain and wood are the main triggers that we've been seeing with the incident reports, at least in North America.

New Industries Need To Be Vigilant

Nate: Well, and it's interesting that you mentioned some kind of newer industries as well and you wonder if the dust awareness will take a little while to catch up in those or if they're going to be on top of it right away.

Chris: I think I know the answer. I mean, so you know, preface that to say, even any new industry, right, they're gonna be, as production increases and things move faster, generally that industry will just move faster than the safety standards can keep up, than the safety understanding can keep up. The standards definitely will lag, right is something that's known today. Say if say if I magically said 3D printing of nano aluminum powders needs to be solved like this. Even if I knew that, it would take four or six years to actually get into a standard development cycle and within four to six years, we're not going to be talking about new nano titanium anymore. We're going to talk about some other new technologies. So those, those industries that are rapidly evolving generally are evolving faster than the standard development process can even evolve ahead of it. So awareness is a big key. That's what we're trying to do, just make it available to folks in these industries that this is something you need to be looking at. And then just trying to get the qualified people in place to understand, assess these hazards. Again, if you're using some of these novel materials that are higher ignition sensitivity, higher explosivity parameters, you don't want to use the same methodologies that you might with a low reactivity, say iron material or wood flour, which are still plenty reactive enough to cause large devastation, but just they react in different ways and some of these other more novel energetic materials.

Nate:  Yeah, it's a constantly moving target, it seems like, with the industries.

Chris: It is, yeah.

Nate: Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Chris. It was great talking with you.

Chris: Yeah, I agree and I appreciate the work that you and your team are doing over there as well with these podcasts and with the website and the magazine as well.

Nate: Thank you

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