Dust Explosion Dangers Case Studies

Oct 19, 2016

When Water Turns a Fire Into an Explosion


A combustible dust explosion is an ever-present danger for workers in many industries. These two examples show that despite increased awareness, explosive dust still puts lives at risk. One thing they both have in common: water may have actually made them much worse.

dust explosion elements: dispersion, confinement, oxygen, fuel and heat

Case #1: Grain Dust

The first example shows how even things that seem like safe and practical fire-fighting measures can lead to disaster. In May, a grain dust explosion occurred in a silo. It injured a worker who was attempting to put out a dust fire with water.

Because the very fine dust was contained in the silo, all the criteria for an explosion were present… except for one. The dust provided fuel for a fire, and the open silo hatch provided oxygen. With the material confined in the closed space of the silo and an ignition source in the form of a grain dryer, the dust explosion danger was high.

Ironically, it was the worker spraying water onto the fire that created the explosion by adding the last element: dispersal of the dust. Water hitting the dust added more air and also raised a cloud of dust. Dust suspended in the air turns the situation from a fire into an explosion. In this case, it blew the roof off the silo and caused serious injuries.

Case #2: Fish Meal Dust

The second example is in some ways a classic industrial dust explosion, except that the material isn’t one you’d expect. In September, a seafood processing plant was seriously damaged and had to be shut down because of an explosion caused by the ignition of fish meal dust.

Fish meal is a fine, dry powder that manufacturers often make into fish food. A local official noted that this is the third time he knows of that fish meal has caused an explosion at a local plant. In this case, a burst pipe may have created an explosion by causing dust to become airborne.

While people don’t think of fish as being explosive, they usually don’t think of metal as being explosive either. Both of them pose an explosion danger when in dust form.

While we talk a lot about combustible metal dust and fumes because many of the industries we work with use metals, organic dusts like grain, spices, powdered milk and egg, sugar, tobacco, and yes, even fish are dangerously explosive if all the right elements are present.

Secondary Explosions from Airborne Dust

While many places that produce metal dust are aware of the risks, some places that produce organic dust don’t realize the danger it poses, or how important a dust collection system is for controlling and handling dust. The most catastrophic damage is often done by secondary explosions: a small dust explosion causes accumulated dust to be dispersed in the air, causing a much larger explosion. Spraying water on a dust fire can do the same thing, sending dust into the air.

Minimize Dust Explosion Danger

Removing dust from the facility and collecting it with a dust collection system designed to prevent or safely control explosions is an important safety strategy. Making sure that dust will not disperse in the air is another key to explosion prevention. In any situation with combustible dust, equip the system with safety features.  Spark arrestors, explosion vent panels, and chemical suppressors can curtail the dust explosion danger in your factory.