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Mining & Resources

International combustible dust expert talks minimising the risk of dust explosions

20 Apr 2012, by Informa Insights

Informa Australia is pleased to welcome international combustible dust expert Mr John Astad  to the speaking faculty of Dust Explosions 2012. Based in the USA, Mr Astad is the Director and Research Analyst for the Combustible Dust Policy Institute which aims to minimise the severity and reduce the occurrence of combustible dust related fires and explosions in the workplace through ongoing research of combustible dust related incidents.

We had the opportunity to talk to John before he heads our way next month.

The risk of complacency around dust management may not be blatantly obvious but the consequences can be catastrophic. What do you think are the main areas of complacency when it comes to the risk of dust-related incidents in industry?
Excellent question Kara. The fire and explosion hazards of combustible dust are quite benign. It’s not like flammable vapors or liquids where you can immediately smell the fumes and recognize the hazard. In the manufacturing sector one of the primary areas of complacency is recurring combustible dust related fires that do not result in any fatalities, injuries, or property damage. Since nothing bad happens in the multitude of global non-consequential incidents a mindset evolves into thinking nothing bad will happen in the future or normalization of deviation. In contrast, these non-consequential fires have a history of eventually escalating into catastrophic events. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has investigated many catastrophic combustible dust incidents of this nature.

How can we minimise the risk? Can we ever fine-tune safety practices to a point where the risk of dust explosions/fires become redundant?
Risk can be minimized through the implementation of cost effective engineering, administrative, and personal protective equipment control measures. That is easier said than done in the current global economic climate. Combustible dust related fires and explosions can never be totally eliminated from the manufacturing process due the inherent combustible nature of raw products in conjunction with a multitude of potential ignition sources in the process. As a result, only the probability of occurrence and severity of consequence can be minimized. Trade organizations and professionals associations can assist immensely in minimizing the risk through training, education, and outreach. Solely relying on governmental enforcement and inspection activities in minimizing the risk is not sufficient.

At Dust Explosions 2012 you will be sharing insights into the Imperial Sugar Company explosion in which 14 people were killed. What did the USA learn from this disaster and have any changes been made across at-risk industries to avoid a repeat?
Following the 2008 catastrophic Imperial Sugar Refinery dust explosion, safety professionals learned that combustible dust is a workplace fire and explosion hazard throughout industry. As a result of this catastrophe, the Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) reissued the Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program (NEP) which provides specific guidelines for OSHA inspectors when conducting combustible dust inspection and enforcement activities at facilities.

The NEP provides a foundation for a dynamic fire and explosion hazard that varies according to the process equipment, process situations (ignition sources) and process materials. Many manufacturing sub-sectors still have not recognized the hazard. In the meantime OSHA is developing a combustible dust rulemaking similar to the OSHA Grain Facility Standard.

Over the past four years since the 2008 Imperial Sugar explosion change has not been immediately forthcoming. Incidents are still occurring resulting in fatalities and injuries. In the regulated community OSHA does not act until receiving recommendations from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board following an accident investigation. This reactive response is on the wrong side of the eight ball and we need to be more proactive.

For example, working more closely with the professional and volunteer fire service utilizing the National Incident Fire Reporting System (NFIRS) will provide a real-time picture illuminating the magnitude of the problem. Currently, the fire service has been excluded from the OSHA combustible dust rulemaking process. When a facility has a combustible dust related fire that escalates past the incipient stage who are you going to call?

Dust Explosions 2012 will examine industrial hazards, the means to control or eliminate dust and analyse the latest technology to ensure maximum protection and safety. How important is it for impacted industries to talk about this issue and knowledge share?
It is very important for industries to share knowledge especially across global sectors such as mining, grain, and manufacturing. For example, in the USA grain sector there are robust predictive engineering control measures for bucket elevators that can also be utilized in the manufacturing and mining sectors. Technology utilizing engineering controls is only one control measure and it is equally important to address administrative controls such as zoning hazardous areas (20, 21, 22) for all ignition sources where fire or explosion hazards exist. Conferences such as Dust Explosions 2012 bring the issues to the forefront where professionals can share cost effective methods that work in their specific industry but also workable in other global sub-sectors.

Are there any sessions you are particularly looking forward to hearing and what can conference participants expect to hear from you?
I’m particularly interested in the Day Two case studies providing an industry perspective of tackling dust emissions and developments in dust management. Combustible dust can never be totally eliminated from the process and it will be enlightening to learn what steps are being done to minimize the risk in this area. Regarding dust management I’d like to share the recent National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Tentative Interim Amendment (TIA-06-1) for NFPA 654 that addresses layer depth criterion in conjunction with bulk density in managing combustible dust in the workplace.

I look forward to sharing with attendees at Dust Explosions 2012 a global perspective concerning workplace combustible dust fire and explosion hazards. It doesn’t matter what side of the equator an incident occurs on as the process and materials are similar and have a commonality. My research on combustible dust incidents intensified when I noticed global trends throughout all industrial sectors. Now the challenge is to communicate the risk on a global basis sharing ideas and knowledge amongst stakeholders. Thank you for providing the opportunity to participate in Dust Explosions 2012 and I look forward to meeting all the attendees next month.

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