US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigations Board chairman John Bresland takes aim at dust explosions

An explosive dust-up

17 April 2008 17:40  [Source: ICB]

The new head of the  US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB)  is taking aim at preventing a frequent and deadly occurrence - dust explosions

Joseph Chang/New York

NEW US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) chairman John Bresland already has his hands full. With a major explosion at the Imperial Sugar refinery in February, the safety chief is shining the spotlight on dust explosions.

These explosions have been particularly destructive, according to Bresland, who was appointed head of the agency in March.

"Three of the four most serious incidents in the past few years were dust explosions," he says. "We found in a study in 2006 that, in the past 15 years, there had been about 280 dust explosions that killed around 120 people and caused extensive injuries and damage."

Although the CSB also published the report in 2006, and made recommendations to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to create a comprehensive standard for explosive dust safety, no standard was forthcoming.

Then in February 2008 came the huge dust explosion at Imperial Sugar in Savannah, Georgia, which killed 13 and injured 60. In March, Representative George Miller (Democrat, California), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, introduced a bill that would force the OSHA to implement nationwide precautions against explosive dust hazards.

He charged that OSHA failed to voluntarily implement recommendations made by the CSB in 2006. Earlier this month, the CSB received a response from the OSHA on its earlier recommendations.

"Congress is certainly urging OSHA to move ahead on our recommendations," says Bresland. "OSHA has not agreed to move forward with a new standard but is still considering what to do."

Other recent, deadly dust explosions in the US include two in 2003 - one at West Pharmaceuticals in North Carolina, which killed six, and one at CTA Acoustics in Kentucky, which killed seven.

"Dust explosions tend to be very serious and often happen where you normally wouldn't think such an explosion would occur," says Bresland.

In a typical dust combustion incident, there are two explosions, he says. "There is an initial explosion, and that causes other dust that settled in the process area to fluff up and prompt a secondary explosion. The latter tends to be the most critical."

Dust explosions are preventable if standards to keep combustible dust contained and clear from an ignition source are followed.

"The pharmaceutical and chemical industries routinely produce fine powders, and have pretty much figured out how to prevent dust explosions," says Bresland. "They usually happen at other facilities where precautions are not being followed."

The West Pharmaceutical plant was producing rubber products and in the process, combustible dust accumulated, he noted.

"Dust explosions are preventable, with people having the knowledge that they could happen at their facility," says Bresland. "Then they have to put in the appropriate safeguards. Thirdly, you need good housekeeping. If a facility has combustible dust on its property, the plant needs to be kept as clean as possible."

Following the Imperial Sugar disaster, Georgia set regulations on combustible dust at all facilities. "Georgia has realized that this is not just an issue with certain groups of industries," Bresland points out. "Dust explosions can happen at a multitude of different types of operations."

The CSB, based in Washington, D.C., typically investigates six to eight accidents every year with a staff of around 40 and a budget of $9m (€5.7m)/year. The CSB has no regulatory authority, but investigates and makes recommendations. Bresland will ask Congress for additional funding and aims to add additional staff in the near future.

"The most important things we come up with are the recommendations, because these are what prevent accidents from happening in the future," says Bresland. "In real estate, it's location, location, location. In our business - prevention, prevention, prevention."

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