The Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency created to investigate chemical accidents on the job, reported that there were 281 incidents involving combustible dust between 1980 and 2005. In that time frame, these accidents killed 119 workers and injured 718 along with extensive damage to the plants and facilities they were working in. So what is combustible dust and how can we stay safe as workers? Here’s what you need to know.
What Is Combustible Dust?
Dust in general is commonplace in a variety of industries and blue-collar workplaces. It’s created as a result of handling, processing, shaping, blasting, cutting, mixing and sifting materials. Dust that is combustible is no different in that respect, however the dust that falls into this category can catch fire and explode under the right conditions. Materials such as aluminum, charcoal and various types of plastics can create this type of dust. It can also be created from food materials such as sugar, wood flour and spice powders. Where can you find combustible dust in a plant or factory? On equipment, suspended ceilings, air ducts and crevices. So how can this seemingly harmless dust cause a major workplace accident?
How Dust Explosions Happen
Grain elevators, chemical manufacturing plants and recycling facilities are just a few of the places where dust explosions have happened. As we mentioned before, these explosions happen under certain conditions. Besides the presence of dust, there needs to be an ignition source (think sparks and friction) and oxygen in the air, resulting in a fire. For the fire to turn into an explosion there has to be a sufficient amount of dust circulating in the air and a confined space such as a room or a piece of equipment to keep in the dust cloud. When all of these six elements are in place, a dust explosion occurs.
How You Can Protect Yourself
Knowing what combustible dust is and how it can be hazardous in the workplace is the first step in staying safe. Because this dust accumulates on flat surfaces, avoid having them in a workplace so they don’t have a place to settle. If you do need to clean up this dust, don’t use brooms or compressed air hoses. Instead, use a vacuum that’s made specifically for eliminating combustible dust. Keeping heavy equipment in good working order is also important. Things like worn parts can cause unnecessary friction and heat that can ignite the dust and start a fire. Another good safety measure is making sure the work site has (and maintains) the right ventilation equipment.
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