Dangers of combustible dust in workplace

By Bill Spencer - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - When industrial explosions happen, whether it's in a factory, on an oil rig, or in a massive manufacturing plant, can be devastating. Industrial explosions can turn a productive workplace into a war zone.

There are many causes for the explosions and fires, but one hidden danger that faces millions of workers in this country is something most of us would never dream could hurt anyone: combustible dust.

Dust often appears so harmless that many people simply ignore it, and in the past, doing so has lead to death and destruction.

Combustible dust, or dangerous dust, builds up in between machines and on pipes, conveyor belts, grain elevators and floors.

Common materials like sugar, flour, metal filings, wood particles and even powdered coffee creamer can form dangerous dust. The powdery substances can build up to explosive levels and, if they find an ignition source, explode into flames.

A deadly example is the Imperial Sugar Plant Explosion that took place on Feb. 7, 2008. Huge accumulations of sugar dust piled up in the factory and were ignited by an unknown source. The resulting chain reaction of explosions and fire killed 14 workers and left 38 others with serious burns.

To show just how dangerous combustible dust can be and how fast it can burn, Channel 2 Investigates set up a demonstration with help from engineers and industrial hazard specialists from the Offshore Commissioning Solutions Group in Houston.

Using nothing more than ordinary powdered coffee creamer, we poured about a cup of the substance onto a shop motor with a small flame behind it and the coffee creamer exploded into flame.

Other sources of combustible dust include aluminum, plastics and organic chemicals.

But now OCS is working to help other companies that own industrial plants, factories and rigs to identify sources of combustible dust accumulations, ignition sources that could spark that dust and other hazards.

OCS conducts inspections at the facilities and trains workers to identify the problem areas and eliminate the danger from a multitude of hazards.

"We want to be able to save lives, that’s all we want, and we can do that through the right training," said Rosemary Mazor, training coordinator for OCS.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board calls combustible dust a preventable problem that can be wiped out if companies follow guidelines from OSHA and the National Fire Protection Association.

If you would like to learn more about combustible dust, click here to view an in-depth video produced by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

2016 Click2Houston/KPRC2