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Things appeared normal just before an air filter blew off a corn-grinding device shortly before a deadly explosion demolished Didion Milling Co. in Cambria, WI, May 31 last year.

Dust in the manufacturing automation sector is an ongoing problem to the point where if it is not contained and mitigated properly it can end up being the cause of a disaster.

Take the May 2017 Didion Mill blast that left five dead and 14 others injured.

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As a part of its investigation into that explosion, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) issued a “Call to Action: Combustible Dust” to gather comments on the management and control of combustible dust from companies, regulators, inspectors, safety training providers, researchers, unions, and the workers affected by dust-related hazards.

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“Our dust investigations have identified the understanding of dust hazards and the ability to determine a safe dust level in the work place as common challenges,” said CSB Interim Executive Kristen Kulinowski. “While there is a shared understanding of the hazards of dust, our investigations have found that efforts to manage those hazards have often failed to prevent a catastrophic explosion. To uncover why that is, we are initiating this Call to Action to gather insights and feedback from those most directly involved with combustible dust hazards.”

This initiative asks for information from all individuals and entities involved in the safe conduct of work within inherently dust-producing environments at risk for dust explosions.

The CSB seeks input on a variety of complex issues, including: Recognizing and measuring “unsafe” levels of dust in the workplace, managing responsibilities and expectations that sometimes are at odds with each other (e.g., performing mechanical integrity preventative maintenance while simultaneously striving to minimize dust releases in the work environment), and the methods for communicating the low-frequency but high-consequence hazards of combustible dust in actionable terms for those working and overseeing these environments.

Comments can be emailed to the CSB until November 26. The CSB will use the information provided to explore new opportunities for safety improvements.

Dust incidents continue to impact a variety of industries.

In 2006, the CSB identified 281 combustible dust incidents between 1980 and 2005. In terms of incidents, 119 workers were fatally injured, 718 more were hurt, and industrial facilities were extensively damaged. The incidents occurred in 44 states, in many different industries, and involved a variety of different materials.

Since the publication of the study in 2006, the CSB has confirmed an additional 105 combustible dust incidents and conducted in-depth investigations of five, including most recently the Didion Milling dust explosion in Cambria, Wisconsin, that killed five workers and demolished the milling facility.

The CSB has issued four recommendations to OSHA calling for the issuance of a comprehensive general industry standard for combustible dust, and combustible dust safety is on the agency’s Drivers of Critical Chemical Safety Change list. To date, there is no general industry standard.

“Our investigation of the Didion incident continues and we are analyzing evidence to understand the specifics leading up to the tragic event,” said CSB Investigator Cheryl MacKenzie. “However, this investigation reinforces what we are seeing across many industries — that there needs to be a more inclusive approach to creating and maintaining a safe work environment amid processes that inherently produce dust.”

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