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Grain elevator explosion kills six in Kansas City, USA

07 November 2011

An explosion at a grain elevator in Kansas has claimed six lives on October 29th 2011. Three victims were found initially but unstable concrete and other damage forced crews to temporarily call off their search at the Bartlett Grain Co. facility in Atchison, about 50 miles NW of Kansas City. The bodies of the final three victims of a grain elevator blast were recovered on the following Monday a company official said.

The first three casualties found were Bartlett Grain Co. workers aged 20, 21 and 24. The blast, which shook the ground in neighboring Missouri, highlights the dangers workers face inside elevators brimming with highly combustible grain dust at the end of the harvest season. The explosion sent an orange fireball into the sky, created a large hole in the side of the one of its concrete silos and blew a huge section of the grain distribution building roof off.

Bartlett Grain President Bill Fellows said in a statement that workers were loading a train with corn when the explosion occurred, but the cause is not immediately known.

Explosions are a leading hazard at grain elevators. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, there have been more than 600 explosions over the last 40 years, killing over 250 and injuring in excess of 1,000 people. Grain dust is the main source of elevator blasts, as the dust can become airborne and explosive then needing only a slight ignition source, such as electrical sparks, to cause a blast.

When grain is handled it creates dust that floats around inside the storage facility. The finer the grain dust particles, the greater its volatility. The explosion sends a pressure wave that detonates the rest of the floating dust in the facility. Another common feature of dust explosions is fireballs, where intense heat from the blast can reach 1,500 to 2,000 degrees.

Devastation following grain dust explosion
Devastation following grain dust explosion

Dust from corn is among the most dangerous. Most dust explosions happen in late summer and early Autumn when old, dried grain is being cleaned out of elevators in preparation for the harvest. Freshly harvested corn is less explosive because its wetter.

OSHA has expanded its inspections and efforts to control volatile grain dust in Kansas elevators since an explosion in 1998 at DeBruce Grain, Inc.'s facility in Haysville, which killed seven workers and injured 10.

The Atchison facility where the blast occurred has not been cited for any violations in the last 10 years, according to OSHA data.

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