What do you want out of your job? That is, besides a paycheck? Ask 100 people, and you might get 100 different answers, but generally we hope to have a few things at our place of work besides our pay:
- Happiness. Who doesn’t want a satisfying and enjoying career? Going to work every day without dreading it is a nice place to be.
- Health. No one desires a job that negatively affects our health, including mental health. Physical strain, accident risk, and stress are all factors that come into play here. Some jobs can actually improve our health if they include physical activity or come with a health-club membership or medical insurance.
- A sense of purpose. We’d all like to look back on our careers and think that we accomplished something.
This blog isn’t designed to help much with #1 and #3, but I have been touching on the second item lately. Specifically, I’ve been focusing on dirty air in the workplace and the problems it causes in worker health. Breathing in fine particles can damage your throat, lungs, and major body organs. It affects your risk of slip/fall accidents, too.
But if you’re encountering dirty air in the workplace, there’s an even more serious risk that can blow up in your face, literally. Dust particles suspended in the air can cause an explosion if exposed to a spark or flame. Seemingly innocent materials have caused death and destruction in production environments for over 100 years. Consider a few examples:
- 1878 – The Washburn A Mill, which handles flour in Minneapolis, explodes on the night of May 2nd. Debris is sent hundreds of feet in the air, and the explosion is heard over ten miles away. Eighteen workers are killed in the initial and subsequent blasts.
- 1921 – On September 19th, a mine in Mount Mulligan, Australia explodes due to naked flames igniting coal dust and kills 76 miners.
- 1977 – A grain elevator in Galveston, Texas explodes on December 27th due to dust in the air and kills 20 workers.
- 1987 – Flax dust in a textile mill in China explodes and leaves 58 (the L.A. Times reports 47) people dead.
- 2008 – Fourteen people die when sugar dust explodes at a refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia. Watch a video detailing the disaster.
There are many others. The point is that almost anything, from flour to aluminum to coal, can blow up when suspended into the air as fine particles and exposed to a spark or flame. Obviously, explosions in the workplace are not a good thing. Flying debris, intense heat, shockwaves, and asphyxiation can kill and they can all result from such an explosion.
How can this kind of accident be prevented? A variety of methods have been used, including:
- Removal of the oxygen from dust-producing processes in the workplace. This is not always ideal, as it requires protecting workers from possible asphyxiation.
- Practicing good housekeeping. An initial explosion may cause dust from the ceiling or another surface to fall, allowing the explosion to spread. Keeping all areas clean mitigates this risk.
- Deflagration venting. Certain equipment, such as dust collectors, can be configured so that if a dust explosion does occur, it is vented into a safe area (PDF) instead of toward personnel and equipment.
- Deflagration suppression. An explosion can be directed through a device that uses chemicals to prevent flames from reaching workers or equipment. This may be a good choice for areas where venting is not possible.
What can you do?
If you’re a manager, executive, or safety official at your place of work, you should be aware of the devastating effects of a dust explosion in your facility. You should be aware of what can be done to protect human life and health using the various technologies available. Don’t allow cost to be the only factor you consider when evaluating explosion-prevention strategies.
If you’re not in a management or safety-department role, it’s likely that you don’t have a part to play in the decision making process of mitigating or preventing a dust explosion in your workplace. But you do have a say in your own health and safety. If you see a potentially dangerous dust situation, speak up. Your health, even your life, is at stake.