Deadly – and Often Unseen – Hazards: Combustible Dust in the Workplace
December 14, 2017
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) wants employers – and workers – to know just how dangerous combustible dust is, and how it can result in explosions and flash fires in the workplace. Because it is the legal responsibility of employers to maintain a safe working atmosphere for every worker, taking precautionary measures to prevent fuel-related fires, injuries, illnesses and deaths should be a priority, particularly in workplaces where combustible materials are commonly found.
OSHA defines combustible dust as any solid material containing distinct particles or pieces (regardless of their size), which can present fire hazards when other elements are also present. In order for a fire or explosion to occur, there also needs to be:
- An ignition source;
- Oxygen in the air;
- A sufficient concentration and quantity of dust particles to be dispersed, and:
- Confinement of the dust cloud
All different kinds of materials can be combustible and create serious fire risks for workers across a variety of industries. There are combustible metals (e.g. aluminum, titanium and iron), materials like coal and charcoal, and a variety of agricultural products such as flour, egg whites, cellulose, tobacco and fertilizer. Epoxy and phenolic resin, polypropylene and melamine are combustible plastics, and there are others like rubber, sulfur, soap and certain pharmaceuticals, dyes and biosolids.
According to OSHA, these materials are most likely to be present in industries that produce and manufacture wood, pesticides, plastics, additive manufacturing, fossil fuels, foods – even those who work in 3D printing are often exposed to combustible dusts. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) encourages caution, declaring anyone involved in industrial processes that reduce combustible materials – and sometimes noncombustible ones as well – into finely reduced states may be at a serious risk for explosion or fire.
Flash fires are strong and happen suddenly. They have the capacity to inflict serious injuries and death, and occur when a dispersed combustible substance mixes with oxygen and is then ignited. Every year, OSHA estimates that approximately 3-4% of all workplace fatalities are the result of fires – that’s roughly 143 workers who lose their lives annually. If employers and supervisors took better safety measures to limit at-work fire risks, fewer workers would die or be injured.
OSHA counts an average of 5,000 men and women who get hurt in fires at work every year. Depending on what kind of combustible dust initiated a fire, workers can sustain a different type of burn. Common burn types are chemical, electrical, thermal, scald and contact burns. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) finds that younger male workers are at the highest statistical risk for workplace burns and injuries and that the cause of a fire is often inadequate training and the failure to enforce various fire safety regulations.
People can experience a range of injuries when a fire suddenly begins in their workplace. Some injuries are so severe that they require surgical procedures – such as multiple skin grafts – and when combustible dusts are involved, individuals are often prone to sustaining lung or throat damage as a consequence of breathing in hazardous chemicals. Some may also experience gastrointestinal burns from breathing in the chemicals.
Generally, burns fall into one of three categories: first-degree, second-degree and third-degree. First-degree burns are the least serious and only affect the very outermost layer of the skin, but still cause pain, redness and swelling. Second-degree burns affect the outermost and second layer of the skin; they can result in scarring, take longer to heal and are often accompanied by blisters. Of the three, third-degree burns are the most dangerous and burn the deepest – all the way to the layer of fat below the skin. People with third-degree burns often have other injuries as well and may have sustained smoke inhalation.
Other typical injuries associated with fires include:
- Scarring caused by an overgrowth of scar tissue (known as keloids);
- Low body temperature;
- Infection or sepsis;
- Low blood volume;
- Skin shortening and/or tightening;
- Breathing problems, and:
- Joint and bone problems
By following OSHA’s fire safety guidelines and workplace standards, employers can greatly limit the risk of combustible dust hazards. Providing consistent and comprehensive fire training as well as having effective, up-to-date emergency plans in place are both crucial for helping workers to have a better chance of staying safe if a fire does occur. For example, at least 200 fires happen daily in workplaces throughout the United States, but the NFPA still regularly finds fire alarms in places of employment that are disabled because they’re regarded as “nuisances” as well as unnecessary.
Here are a few critical steps that every employer should be taking to prevent combustible dust explosions, flash fires and fires at work:
- To minimize the escape of dust from ventilation systems or process equipment, utilize dust collection systems and filters;
- Regularly inspect for dust residues – and clean – in open and hidden areas;
- Only use appropriate electrical equipment and wiring methods and control open flames, ignition sparks and smoking;
- Have adequate damage control (e.g. explosion protection systems, sprinkler systems, pressure relief venting, etc.) and:
- Ensure that employees in combustible dust workplaces are in compliance with OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard (labeling all chemicals, using safety sheets and providing employee training)
One of the main reasons it is so important for employees to know the warning signs of a combustible dust explosion or fire is because they are the ones who face being exposed to them, particularly if an employer has failed to put adequate safety measures in place. If workers have been trained on what emergency precautions to take and are quick to alert their supervisors to all unsafe conditions, explosions or fires, there is less chance of injuries, deaths and damages occurring. The best way to inhibit combustible dust fires in the workplace, however, is for employers to be the first line of defense against these primarily preventable hazards and to ensure that workers are fully protected.
Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at Galfand Berger, LLP Represent Individuals Injured by Combustible Dust Fires in the Workplace
If you or a loved one has suffered injuries or death due to exposure from combustible dust in the workplace, please contact our Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation lawyers. Galfand Berger has offices located in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Reading and Lancaster, and we serve clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. To schedule a consultation, call us at 800-222-8792 or complete our online contact form.