Don’t Forget About Combustible Dust Dangers

Dec. 8, 2022

The weekend before my first day on the Chemical Processing staff my friend, Lindsey, shared a Facebook post about a massive fire and explosion at a former flour mill in her hometown of Kent, Ohio. 

The iconic mill was familiar to anyone who lived in the town or attended Kent State University, my alma mater. As reported by the Record-Courier in Ravenna, Ohio, the nine-building complex dates back to 1882, eventually producing 100 million pounds of flour and 35 million pounds of wheat bran products per year for large consumer packaged goods companies, such Archway Cookie, Pepperidge Farm and the H.J. Heinz Co.

The mill, last owned by the Star of the West Milling Co. of Emmett, Michigan, ceased operations at the site in 2016. While the cause of the fire is still unknown, I started thinking about the inherent dangers in the milling industry.

Let’s be clear: There is no evidence that combustible dust played a role in the Kent fire. But losing an historic structure that once housed a thriving milling operation is, at the very least, a symbolic reminder that we cannot let our guard down when it comes to process safety.

In the chemical processing industry, we know that dust control is essential. Many people may recall the Didion Milling explosion in May 2017 that killed five workers and injured several others.

Shortly after the Didion incident, CP Editor-in-Chief Traci Purdum and Trish Kerin, director of the IChemE Safety Centre, discussed it in depth in their “Process Safety With Trish and Traci” podcast

As Kerin remarked, dust awareness can be easily overlooked:

“The fact is that we see a lot of places that have dust explosions, just really don't get that dust can be explosive. And one of the challenges is we often think if we think about, you know, combustibles or flammables, we think petrol, gasoline, we think those sorts of things. We don't necessarily think about flour, sugar, corn, these are all things we eat. And I think that actually puts us into a false sense of security. Because how dangerous can flour be? How dangerous can corn be or sugar? The fact is very dangerous when it actually is in the right conditions for an explosion.”

Kerin continued, stressing the importance of cleaning and using proper enclosures to protect hidden areas from dust accumulation:

“If you have beams in your facility, ceiling beams, they actually need to be fully encased. You can't have an eye beam or a sea channel exposed because the flanges are perfect for the accumulation of dust that you can't see because it's up in the air and it's on a surface facing the ceiling. So, you can't see it from the ground. So, things like having enclosures around your beams are really important as well to make sure that you can't accumulate dust on them. Keeping your housekeeping up-to-date and making sure that you're doing things like vacuuming the dust, not blowing the dust. Because, you know, it can be a lot quicker if we just get the leaf blower out and start moving the dust around. We can move it much quicker, but that's not the right thing to do, that will potentially create a hazardous environment for you. So things must be vacuumed, not swept, vacuumed. That's the only way that you can actually make sure that you can contain the dust. You've got to make sure you've got your bag filters in place and they're being regularly changed, so you're not getting breakthrough of the dust coming through them either.”

The cost of noncompliance or negligence is significant. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration fined Didion more than $1.8 million shortly after the incident, and in May a grand jury returned an indictment against the company.

We also know that safety and productivity go hand in hand. Damaged facilities, shutdowns, injuries and investigations have a significant impact on operating capacity. Stay tuned to our ongoing coverage of combustible dust, including our webinar roundtable series, to gain a understanding about potential dust-related risks and how to address them.

About the Author

Jonathan Katz | Executive Editor

Jonathan Katz, executive editor, brings nearly two decades of experience as a B2B journalist to Chemical Processing magazine. He has expertise on a wide range of industrial topics. Jon previously served as the managing editor for IndustryWeek magazine and, most recently, as a freelance writer specializing in content marketing for the manufacturing sector.

His knowledge areas include industrial safety, environmental compliance/sustainability, lean manufacturing/continuous improvement, Industry 4.0/automation and many other topics of interest to the Chemical Processing audience.

When he’s not working, Jon enjoys fishing, hiking and music, including a small but growing vinyl collection.

Jon resides in the Cleveland, Ohio, area.

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