Dust-explosion risk still high around the country

For many reasons, jobs in industrial settings carry relatively large amounts of danger. Heavy equipment and fast-moving machinery can be hazards to even the most careful of employees. There is another common danger that can be extremely dangerous, with the potential for multiple casualties: combustible dust explosions.

This kind of industrial accident occurs when a buildup of dust particles is somehow ignited. The dust can accumulate in a number of different industrial settings; common ones include dust created by saws in wood mills, metal dust created from polishing techniques, or dust from grain that is generated in plants such as flour mills.

If the dust is present on equipment in strong enough concentrations, a spark, such as from a welding torch or even from static electricity -- can ignite the dust and create an explosion. That primary explosion can cause the dust to become unsettled in the air and lead to another, more catastrophic blast.

There have been some major explosions due to combustible dust in the recent past. A sugar plant explosion in Georgia in 2008 killed 14 people and injured many more as a result of a dust explosion. Officials suspect the same cause for a feed mill disaster in Nebraska in January of this year.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said after the Georgia explosion that it would issue rules around how to handle combustible dust; however, it has yet to do so, and now says that it may be several years before the process is complete. We can only hope that there won't be any more large-scale disasters before that happens.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "Combustible-Dust Explosions Prompt Calls for More Oversight," April 9, 2014

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