It can happen in wood mills, grain mills, sugar factories, and plastic plants: Combustible dust particles become airborne in a confined space, they overheat, are sparked, and ignite, causing an explosion.  If the plant isn’t completely clean, that explosion will knock more dust particles loose and cause another, usually larger, explosion.  This happened at the Imperial Sugar Factory Company in Georgia in 2008: multiple explosions caused by accumulated and airborne sugar particles killed fourteen workers and injured dozens more. 

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board discovered after the fact that “[e]levated areas were infrequently cleaned so sugar dust accumulated to dangerous levels,” and the Board’s Investigation Report contains numerous photos of the scene of the accident, with sugar piled up like snow.  The investigation turned up correspondence among factory management dating as far back as 1961 acknowledging that explosive dust could be a problem; a 1967 memo from a refinery engineer stated, “We make a lot of dust in the plant and have had a very inefficient dust collecting system[;] consequently, it has been hopeless to try to keep the dry end of our plant clean.”

This past January, a plant belonging to International Nutrition collapsed in Omaha, killing two workers and injuring four others.  The collapse is being tentatively attributed to a dust explosion caused by caused by the use of rice hulls, although the plant owner denies that the company worked with products that caused explosive dust.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has compiled data showing that from 1980 to 2011, more than 450 dust fires or explosions occurred, killing 150 people and injuring 900.

The trouble at hand now is that we’re still waiting for OSHA to come out with a set of rules to prevent dust explosions. According to OSHA’s deputy assistant secretary of labor Jordan Barab, it’s tough to come up with a set of rules to prevent dust explosions that are technically and economically feasible for the large range of factories that create dust.  Industry groups agree, although there is no word from the workers themselves.

Because we don’t know what the rules to prevent dust explosion will be, we don’t know how much it will cost plant owners.  It would likely require plants to be cleaner, to reduce the presence of ambient dust; better ventilated or cooler; and less dry.  But according to Mr. Barab, OSHA is still years away from issuing these rules.

Maybe you’ve been injured in a dust explosion at your workplace and you need someone to help you get your life back on track.  I like to say to my clients, "Help me to help you."  If we can help you call the Lombardi Law Firm to speak with attorneys Steve Lombardi and Katrina Schaefer. We can be reached at 515-222-1110 or by emailing us at [email protected] and [email protected] We look forward to your call.

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