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Fuel for disaster

29 July 2009

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has released a safety video depicting how accumulations of combustible dust at worksites can provide the fuel for devastating explosions that kill and maim workers, shut down plants, and harm local economies. Entitled, “Combustible Dust: An Insidious Hazard,” the video is available online at, and on YouTube. It can also be ordered free of charge on a new two-DVD set of all CSB safety videos by filling out the CSB’s online DVD request form.

“Combustible Dust: An Insidious Hazard”
“Combustible Dust: An Insidious Hazard”

"Combustible Dust" features CSB computer animations which illustrate three major dust explosion accidents the CSB has investigated: West Pharmaceutical Services in Kinston, North Carolina; CTA Acoustics in Corbin, Kentucky; and Hayes Lemmerz International, in Huntington, Indiana.

For each accident, the animations show how explosive dust accumulated over years on plant equipment, pipes, floors, ducts, dust collectors, and other areas. The video shows how conditions develop needing only an ignition source to set off a primary explosion, which lofts the accumulated dust, leading to deadlier secondary explosions.

News footage and still photographs depict actual damage caused by these explosions, as well as other accidents including last year’s tragedy which killed 14 workers at the Imperial Sugar Company, in Port Wentworth, Georgia.

"No company wants to see its facility blown up and destroyed and its employees killed," CSB Chairman John Bresland said in the video. "But they just don't understand what the hazard is, they don't realise that they have a hazard here, until that one day when the explosion occurs, and it's a terrible tragedy for them. And they look back and say, ‘If we'd only known.’"

The video points out that dust accumulations – and the resulting secondary dust explosions – can be readily prevented. National Fire Protection Association standards have long been available to general industry and, if followed, will prevent such accidents, as NFPA official Amy Beasley Spencer stated in the video.

The video features comments by the CSB investigators who led each of the accident investigations, as well as Angela Blair, who led the CSB study resulting in a comprehensive CSB report on dust hazards in 2006. The report identified 281 fires and explosions that had occurred over the previous 25 years. "What is so frustrating about dust explosions is that they're so preventable," Blair said.

Combustible-dust expert James Dahn appears in the video to warn companies against complacency: "I mean we've been operating for 40 years and never had a problem," Dahn stated. "That kind of logic is one that can guarantee you will get into trouble."

Laboratory footage in the video depicts how easily combustible dust ignites, as a small dust sample gathered by investigators in the rubble of a dust explosion site is lofted over a flame and creates an instant fireball.

Bresland said the CSB hopes the video will be viewed across general industry – in all facilities where combustible dust may be generated in the manufacturing process. "It is our hope," Bresland said, "that company executives, safety managers, and labor groups will take 29 minutes to view this video and ask themselves, ‘Could this happen at our operation?’ And then take action to eliminate dust hazards from their facilities."

In the video, Bresland calls for action to prevent dust explosions, saying, "We need education. We need industry to understand what the hazards are. We need regulation. We need a comprehensive combustible dust regulation, and we need enforcement of the regulation."

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