The Harrington Group

What I learned at the NFPA Conference – Combustible Dust: Firefighting Precautions, Part 1

Posted on Thursday, June 27th, 2013

Imperial Sugar Combustible Dust Explosion

Imperial Sugar Combustible Dust Explosion

Recently, I attended the NFPA Conference in Chicago. This event is always a valuable experience for me and I thought I would take the time to put together a few posts that focus on what I learned from some of this year’s educational sessions.

During the conference, I attended a session called “Combustible Dust: Firefighting Precautions” that was given by Mat Chibbaro. Mat is a fire protection engineer with the Occupational Safety and Health Association’s (OSHA) national office and a part-time fire protection lecturer at the University of Maryland.

Why Focus on Combustible Dust Firefighter Precautions?

Mat’s presentation focused primarily on firefighting considerations to prevent combustible dust explosions, as each year there are a number of firefighters and emergency workers that are injured, or killed, while responding to calls at facilities with combustible dust. When provided with adequate information and training concerning the explosive nature of combustible dust, emergency responders are more likely to handle these types of incidents in a safer and more effective manner.

The presentation began with an overview of the fundamentals of combustible dust explosion risks  and listed common combustible dusts that are well understood by firefighters, like wood dust, coal dust, flour, metals, and more. Mat went on to discuss several uncommon combustible dusts that are not well understood by firefighters, which include rubber, nylon, sugar, powdered milk, and pharmaceuticals. The presentation also covered the mechanics of flash fire, explosions, and the extreme risk associated with a secondary explosion, as well as the mechanics underlying a secondary explosion event.

OSHA Eyes Combustible Dust

Mat explained that OSHA began to increase their scrutiny of industries that handle combustible dust after three explosions occurred in 2003 that resulted in 14 deaths. Attention grew even more after the 2008 Imperial Sugar Plant explosion in Georgia that resulted in 14 more deaths. There are several more examples of combustible dust explosions that have resulted specifically in firefighter fatalities and injuries throughout the years including:

  • Coal storage silo explosion in South Dakota (2011), killing two firefighters and injuring one;
  • Dumpster at a foundry explosion in Wisconsin (2008), killing one firefighter and injuring eight;
  • Sawdust explosion at a boat plant in Maryland (2005), severely burning four firefighters; and
  • Silo explosion at a lumber company in Ohio (2003), killing two firefighters and injuring eight

If you are interested in learning more about combustible dust and firefighter precautions, checkout Part 2 of this post, which will review how fire departments can handle combustible dust incidents and my top takeaways from Mat’s presentation.


By Jeff Harrington, CEO and Founder of Harrington Group, Inc.

Be Sociable, Share!

Join Our E-Newsletter

If you would like more information, or believe your firm could benefit from Harrington Group’s expertise, we invite you to contact us. Our engineers are trained to listen to your needs and concerns, and help you move forward to find the Best Total Solution.

1 Comment »

  1. Nice summary. Regarding OSHA attention to dust explosions… OSHA took action after two large dust explosions in grain elevators in TX and LA in the late 1970s. (See http://www.gao.gov/assets/130/125953.pdf and http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2011/11/01/safety_measures_reduce_blasts_at_grain_elevators/ ) Multiple deaths including a number of U.S. government inspectors. These incidents led to revision of OSHA guidance re grain elevators, primarily related to dust control. Fenwal, in cooperation with the National Grain and Feed Association, developed an explosion isolation system, called X-PAC, that employed a battery operated poser supply, a pressure detector, and a high-rate discharge extinguisher charged with Halon 1301. Multiple units were positioned on the head and boot sections of elevators. Units operated independently. Rise in pressure in the head or boot section (most likely ignition locations) resulted in discharge of one or more X-PAC units, flooding the zone with Halon 1301. I was part of the team that, in the early 1990′s, developed X-PAC III which employed HFC-125 (zero ozone depletion potential) and, importantly, networked the units so that discharge of any one resulted in discharge of all. This approach provided far greater assurance that a deflagration flame would not slip past the inerted environment. These systems have found wide acceptance in the grain elevator industry.

    Comment by Joseph Senecal — July 11, 2013 @ 11:59 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment