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Combustible Hazards in Massachusetts’ Workplaces

Recently a New England wood pellet company experienced a combustible wood dust explosion and fire. A worker was injured and the building was partly destroyed. The wood dust was ignited in the production room, but moved to a retention bin and resulted in an explosion.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited the wood pellet company. A spokesperson claimed that the potential for death was real, but preventable. There weren’t enough safeguards to stop the initial fire from happening and spreading. It spread to other equipment and elsewhere in the plant. OSHA has specific standards to prevent this type of fire and explosion as does the National Fire Protection Association.

OSHA investigated and learned that workers at the plant faced hazards such as wood dust explosions, rapid combustion, deflagration, and other fire hazards. There were insufficient preventive measures in the equipment and processing system. The retention bin did not have spark detection or explosion suppression or devices to isolate or vent an explosion. Dust collection systems and barriers didn’t minimize fire sources. There was an opening in a fire wall that would allow a fireball to come into the chip room and spread.

OSHA found other fire hazards. Wood dust had accumulated on various surfaces and there was no adequate fire prevention plan, nor dust-tight electrical equipment where it had gathered. The respiratory protection program was lacking and there was excess liquefied petroleum gas stored in the building. The forklift operator wasn’t trained. The procedures and training that surround making sure equipment is properly de-energized were lacking.

OSHA cited the company for eleven serious violations, proposing $43,400 in fines. Combustible wood or other kinds of dust are a byproduct of manufacturing and can trigger dire situations in the workplace if not properly handled and prevented. Explosible dusts include wood, tobacco, fossil fuel, pharmaceuticals, foods (flour, spice, sugar), and more Even aluminum, which doesn’t burn in large pieces, can explode in dust form given certain conditions. In 2010, there was a titanium dust explosion in West Virginia, which killed 3 workers. A sugar dust explosion happened in Georgia in 2008. There were 281 combustible dust incidents in the 25 year period before 2005. This included 119 fatalities and 718 injuries.

Ordinary firefighting techniques can actually make things worse rather than better because they can create dust clouds and affect air levels. Certain agents used to extinguish ordinary fires can be incompatible. This is why prevention is so important. This means having procedures in place to make sure that workers are aware of how to keep dust from excessively accumulating and also ensuring that equipment or live wires will not make a fire worse should one start. It also means an employer should have safety plans in place to allow workers to exit quickly and allow for adequate ventilation. Workers who are exposed to this type of hazard may suffer second and third degree burns, respiratory difficulty or death.

If you are hurt on the job, you may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. An experienced Massachusetts workers’ compensation attorney can evaluate whether you have a sound claim and fight to make sure that your employer and its insurer follow the rules. Contact us by calling 800-367-0871 or using our online contact form.

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