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Modern safety standards and technology have reduced the risk of workplace accidents dramatically. Yet precautionary measures are still necessary to avoid catastrophes such as the 2008 dust explosion that took 13 lives and left another 42 injured at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Georgia.
What Causes Dust Fires and Explosions?
Dust fires and explosions are deadly threats. Dust is extremely combustible, and even ordinarily non-flammable substances pose a risk in particle form due to their increased surface area per volume. These particles, whether sugar, wood, metal, or another material, are common in every industry, including food production, machining, recycling, and the manufacture of synthetic materials.
Fortunately, proper planning and preemptive action via some of the following strategies can help prevent these calamities.
1) Limit the “Fire Triangle” and “Dust Explosion Pentagon.”
The “Fire Triangle” details the three things needed for a fire: a combustible material like dust, an oxidizer provided by the oxygen in the air, and an ignition source such as heat, open flame, static electricity, or a spark.
The danger is exacerbated by the additional two elements that complete the pentagon and turn a fire into a dust explosion. These two elements are the dispersion of dust particles in the air and the potential confinement of the particle cloud inside a small room or enclosure.
2) As per the old quote, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Among the best ways to avert dust fires is to guarantee that dust doesn’t escape into the environment. This dust capture and collection system must be officially and properly approved, installed, and maintained to ensure safe conditions.
Especially as any explosion or commotion will send dust into the air. The airborne dust can then ignite and cause a secondary explosion that can be exponentially larger.
3) Be attentive to detail and adhere to good housekeeping practices.
Diligence is as integral as equipment and procedures. Keeping a clean work area can drastically limit the danger through proper housekeeping methods, such as cleaning all spaces, including the concealed or hard-to-reach ones, like air ducts or the interior of machines.
In addition, using specialty vacuum cleaners, ventilation technology, proper filters, and stringent control and inspection procedures is vital because not much is needed to trigger a fire or explosion. An enclosed room with only 5% of its surface covered in a layer of dust just 1/32nd of an inch thick presents a danger if that dust becomes airborne or ignited.
4) Know the danger signs.
A crucial part of diligence is knowledge. Workers should know what to watch out for and perform routine inspections, fostering optimal mindfulness and a culture of safety. It’s necessary to train new employees to identify and handle potential threats before they become problems. Facilities should regularly review these guidelines to refresh workers on proper safety protocols and to avoid or report unsafe practices.
5) Employ damage control protocols.
Offices, factories, and other facilities can employ damage control strategies by separating threats (dust, possible ignition sources) with distance, barriers, or both. Facilities should also provide efficient deflagration venting for buildings and pressure relief venting for machines. Additionally, extinguishment systems, sprinklers, and other suppression tech, along with detectors for sparks or embers, can prevent or mitigate danger.
6) Minimize ignition threats.
Machines should be inspected just as meticulously as the work area. Maintenance can save lives by ensuring the correct functioning and upkeep of machines, as faulty components are a common ignition source. Safety protocols to control and avert static electricity can also prevent ignition, as can the separation of equipment and heat from areas that produce or accumulate dust.
A Little Effort and Attention Can Yield a Lot of Safety
No industry is without risk. But through safety advancements, mindful habits, and attention to detail, a facility and its individuals can minimize those risks and ensure the greatest possible safety.
Image Credit: Nixx Photography / Shutterstock.com