Combustible dust: An often overlooked safety hazard
We rarely see dust as a serious workplace hazard. Sometimes, we see it floating through the air, building up on window sills and countertops. Dust is seen as more of a nuisance than a hazard, but it can be dangerous, under the right conditions.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines combustible dust as "a solid material composed of distinct particles or pieces, regardless of size, shape, or chemical composition, which presents a fire or deflagration hazard when suspended in air or some other oxidizing medium over a range of concentrations."
Combustible dust particles often include pesticides, rubber, pharmaceuticals, wood, textiles, sulfur, and powdered foods. Those who work in coal mining, woodworking, food production, recycling, and chemical manufacturing are the most at risk of being injured in a fire or explosion.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board reported 119 workplace deaths and 718 injuries caused by combustible dust from 1980-2005. OSHA also references an incident in 2008 that killed 14 workers at a sugar refinery in Georgia.
What causes combustible dust?
Dust tends to accumulate in neglected areas. This includes rafters, vents, above lights, and behind heavy machinery. Even the smallest fire or spark can ignite dust, resulting in a fire or explosion. There can be one or two fires/explosions in one incident. For example, dust in a confined space can be ignited, causing a fire or explosion. The first fire or explosion can then cause dispersed particles to ignite.
There are generally five factors that can lead to a dust-related fire or explosion, according to OSHA. The first three must exist for a fire to occur:
- Combustible dust particles (fuel)
- Source of ignition (heat)
- Adequate oxygen (oxidizer)
Explosions can occur when the last two factors are present:
- Dust confined to one area (primary)
- Dust dispersed over a wide area (secondary)
How can employers lower the risk?
In many cases, employers and workers are completely unaware of combustible dust hazards, and therefore never take measures to remove them. Employers should do the following to lessen the risk of fires and explosions:
- Determine if the materials they work with can create dust.
- Identify any ignition sources, like boilers, heating vents, machinery and tools.
- Identify areas where dust accumulates.
- Adequately clean and maintain facilities and machinery.
If you were hurt on the job due to a fire or explosion, you may be wondering how you will afford your costly medical expenses. You may also be concerned with making ends meet while you're unable to work.
As long as your injury was sustained on the job, you may be eligible for workers' compensation benefits. The Mississippi attorneys at Tabor Law Firm, P.A. can help maximize your chances of receiving benefits. Contact us online to find out how.