The danger of combustible dust cannot be underestimated. What makes combustible dust so insidious is how harmless it may appear at first. Combustible dust can be defined as any substance that has been shown to catch fire/explode under certain conditions. These conditions are known as the Combustible Dust Pentagon: the five ingredients necessary for a combustible dust explosion.
When all five ingredients are present, a cloud of dust can trigger an explosion. That initial explosion could send nearby settled dust into the air; thus, potentially fueling a massive secondary explosion. In the right conditions, these explosions can be large enough to take down entire facilities. Contrary to popular belief, the hazard of combustible dust isn’t limited to certain industries. Organic dust from wood, grains, and sugar/spices poses just as much of a risk as inorganic dust particles from metals, pharmaceuticals, and plastics.
In 1987, OSHA created safety regulations to protect workers from combustible dust accidents; however, these regulations were specific to the grain industry. According to Rafael Moure-Eraso, the Chairman of the United States Chemical Safety Board, OSHA has not expanded these regulations to any other industries, even though combustible dust accidents have caused 29 fatalities and 161 injuries.
What can you do?
In many cases of combustible dust explosions, employees were aware of the dust problem prior to the explosion. If you see a combustible dust hazard in your workplace, it’s important to alert the appropriate manager to the problem immediately. Absent of wide sweeping national OSHA regulations, each employer should still follow the recommended OSHA guidelines on how to protect their lives and the lives of their employees from combustible dust explosions. Please visit the OSHA combustible dust portal for more information on safety standards.