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Q&A with Neil Dennis: Dust – Not to be taken lightly

13 May 2014, by Informa Insights

Neil Dennis, Technical Director and principal electrical/mechanical engineer, AECOM
Neil Dennis, Technical Director and principal electrical/mechanical engineer, AECOM

Dust may appear to be harmless, but if certain conditions prevail, it can cause catastrophic explosions.  Dust explosions are a common hazard in an environment where powdered combustible material is present in an enclosed space.  Coal, wood, cork, grain, starch, sugar, certain metals, some dyes and intermediates, and many plastics, can form explosive dust clouds.

We caught up with AECOM’s Technical Director and principal electrical/mechanical engineer, Neil Dennis, to find out his view on why the risk of dust-related incidents is often overlooked, and how we can better control such hazard. 

Explosion mitigation measures can often be overlooked and the results 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?

Neil: Mitigation measures come in all forms and like many things there is no one solution. Our history and information on incidents and control measures is building rapidly with better access to the world and the internet and many companies take advantage of this. However there is still some complacency about just working through all the potential factors and particularly reviewing old plant.

How can we effectively identify and assess the hazards at our workplace?  What is the best practise in controlling the hazards, especially in the case of combustible dust?

Neil: Best practice always begins with minimising any dust generation in the first place and then preventing any release. Fortunately in new plant, this seems to be understood a lot more than it used to be. However this is often the hardest thing to define in the design of a plant. Often people begin with the ignition controls as the technical detail can be more easily defined, whereas a focus on dust controls should not be lost.

There is usually a cost when it comes to designing and deploying a safety system to reduce dust hazards.  Is there any cost-effective ways to achieve this?

Neil: There are no silver bullets here. However one of my key messages is to suggest that dust related industries should be more involved in the development of safety standards to mitigate potential future costs.

What are some of the key challenges when implementing new safety standards at a workplace?  How can we overcome these challenges?

Neil: Fortunately for dust related industries the standards have not seen the same level of change in safety standards as other hazardous areas. This gives dust industries the opportunity to work on the basic principles and ensure they are understood and reinforced at all times for all persons in the workforce. If you set up the structure correctly, then reducing the level of change in requirements (even if the outset is a little conservative) can pay dividends.

You will be delivering a presentation on “The development of standards for hazardous areas” at the upcoming Dust Explosions conference, taking place on 17th and 18th June in Penrith, NSW.  What is the main message that you’d like to share with the audience on the day?  Is there any other topic that you are looking forward to hear at the event?

Neil: The main message is for relevant industries to be aware that while there may be some ‘churn’ in the electrical standards the big developments are in mechanical standards. The development of mechanical standards can have far reaching impact for industries as time goes on and affected industries should be paying more attention to these developments. There is a noticeable lack of representation from dust industries in these developments and dust industries should be more involved to steer what is happening rather than sitting back.

Neil has over 30 years’ experience in consulting in hazardous areas and process safety with a variety of companies in industries such as petroleum, petrochemical, wastewater, food, defence, specialist manufacturing and processing plants.

With a long history of active involvement in the development of standards for hazardous areas both in Australia and with the International Electrotechnical Commission, (IEC), Neil holds a number of current lead positions in both the ANZ and IEC standards forums covering classification and installations for gas and dust hazardous areas and related topics.

Join Neil and many other industry leaders at the Dust Explosions Conference in June, for two days of knowledge sharing and networking, including the opportunity to attend a site tour with TestSafe Australia and experience a live dust explosion demonstration.  For detailed conference program and to register, please visit the Dust Explosions Conference website.


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