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The dangers of combustible dust in the workplace and how to combat it

30 September 2019

Workplace hazards can be harmful to staff, work equipment and company buildings and assets. To tackle and prevent chemical workspace hazards, such as combustible dust explosions, the employer and supplier directives have been put in place for employers to take on the responsibility of ensuring workplace safety of their staff and protecting them from atmosphere explosives. These directives, known as the ATEX directives, were established by the EU because combus

Combustible dust can be made from a number of materials, including chemicals, metal, grain and wood. These materials could become extremely dangerous when reduced to either a fine powder or even particles that mix with the surrounding air to create a hazardous environment. This could lead to the unfortunate event of a fire or explosions.

Metals

Metals such as aluminium, magnesium and titanium are all a potential source of combustible dust. When the fine particles of the metal mix with the air, it creates an incredibly unstable environment for you and your colleagues to work in. With the light of a match, the entire facility can be engulfed by flames and explosions. 

Organic solid materials

Materials such as coal and sawdust are well-known for combustible dust, however, other materials like starch, sugar, pollen, and grain are also known sources of combustion. There are many incidents where a transport vehicle carrying grains have been the unfortunate victims to combustible dust incidents. These have resulted in violent explosions and the harming/killing of workers and nearby pedestrians. Sawmills and textile facilities are also other places of risk.

There are a number of materials that qualify as combustible dust, these include:

• Pharmaceuticals 

• Metals (as mentioned above)

• Chemical dust 

• Rubber

• Pesticides

• Agricultural products

The air to dust ratio needed to create the hazardous environment does vary depending on the material the combustible dust is made from. When the air to dust ratio is right, a simple spark (from anything like a lighter, cigarette or even the energy created from friction) can ignite the environment. Depending on how fine the combustible dust is can also accelerate how efficient the environment will ignite. This means that you can experience anything from a fire being sparked or a full explosion. 

In view of ATEX, here are some safety considerations employed in ensuring employees and businesses tackle combustive dust in construction work and warehouses.

Implementing inspections

Regular inspections to test the presence of escaped dust will reduce dust accumulations, and therefore the likeliness of an incident. Ways to prevent dust accumulation include knowing how to identify fugitive dust, regular inspection for dust residue, provision of access to hidden spaces to facilitate inspection and ensuring proper ventilation.

Housekeeping

Combustible dust explosions are triggered by escaped dust emissions that heat up and burn at rapid speed under certain conditions. It is advised that warehouses and construction workplaces prevent such occurrences by cleaning using explosion-proof vacuum cleaners made for dust collection. Dust collection systems should also be put in places and conform to fire code requirements.

Building design engineering controls

In building workplaces, the design places a huge role in ensuring the safety of employees. Designs should include fire exit routes such as staircases and legible signs that direct you to main exits. Employers, suppliers and employees should ensure there is a separation of heated surfaces and systems from dust exposure. Pipes and cables, especially when embedded in walls, should be properly covered and housed. In addition, it must be ensured that employees go through proper training and pass a thorough screening before operating equipment. They should have constant access to equipment manuals and keep step-by-step operating instructions of equipment such as cylinders and canisters.

Administrative control worker training

In most investigations, it is usually found that employers and facility managers were unaware of combustible dust hazards. Training warehouse and construction workers on how to identify fugitive or escaped dust, employing fire drills, installing fire alarms and sprinklers, and operating flammable equipment all ensure workplace safety and reduce the dangers of combustible dust hazards in workspaces.

Implementing rules and standards

This is a particularly important preventive measure employed in eliminating possible hazards. They include ensuring the use of appropriate and certified electrical equipment only, investigating previous fires and ignition sources and reporting suspicious findings for future references and generally having a code of conduct.

Installing monitoring systems

This a standard rule for every workplace. Monitoring security systems in real-time gives security personnel a heads up about possible hazardous situations and should not be taken lightly. It is important that in installing CCTVs in warehouses and construction sites, every possible corner and angle should be considered as equally serious vantage points.

How often should you inspect for combustible dust?

In order to ensure that working conditions and hazardous environments are kept to a minimal, it is advisable that you clean the working environment at least once a month of combustible dust. This can be upped depending on the air filtration, volume of combustible dust produced during working hours, and the likeliness of a spark or flame being within the hazardous environment. 

Case study

In the early months of 2019, Latmännen Bakery, Finland, set out to find a business to take care of their dust. As a bakery, the level of cleaning needed to be of the highest standard, and it had to be completed monthly. With a large number of moths living in the rafters and beams, it was a task of highest priority to reduce the risks of contamination of the products being produced below.

Previously, the bakery had been dealing with their dust and moths with a scissor lift and two of their own employees. This method was both inefficient and time-consuming. It took these two employees a total of 300 hours between them each month and the scissor lift meant that the employees were only able to reach 40% of high-level areas, leaving 60% untouched and uncleaned. 

Latmännen Bakery decided enough was enough and opted to secure professional explosive dust equipment to help eliminate the issue. With the specialised equipment and years of experience, the team were able to complete the job to the highest of standards. Two specialists each equipped with a non-spark vacuum cleaner system were able to complete the job within 80 hours and reached 100% of high-level areas. This had many advantages to both the business and their production of goods. The risk of dust contamination is no more, and the efficiency of work was increased due to the safe working conditions and environment. 

About the author:

Ben Mainwaring is the Marketing Director of SpaceVac International. He has been a part of SpaceVac International for roughly four years now. He has helped and taken the lead on multiple projects with the SpaceVac International website and with the different sectors of SpaceVac (USA).


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