NFPA Guidance

The consensus standard for combustible-dust fire safety in general industry is NFPA 654, “Standard for the Prevention of Fire and Dust Explosions from the Manufacturing, Processing, and Handling of Combustible Particulate Solids,” published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). This standard has already been adopted into law in many jurisdictions and was referenced in HR 5522. Other NFPA standards apply to specific dusts or industries, such as NFPA 484, which applies to combustible metals.

According to Dr. Timothy Myers, senior managing engineer at Exponent and principal member of the NFPA 484 technical committee on Combustible Metals, Metal Powders and Metal Dusts, “The most important factor in reducing the likelihood of a dust explosion is identifying the dust-explosion hazard. Standards for the mitigation of dust-explosion hazards have existed for decades, but many facilities do not recognize a hazard exists.”

Prevention vs. Protection

As with most safety hazards, there are two main pathways for reduction of risk – prevention, which constitutes a reduction in likelihood that an event will occur, and protection, which provides means for a reduction in the severity of an event if one is triggered. Methods of preventing dust explosions include:
  • Preventing releases of dusts from an enclosure into the workspace
  • Regular housekeeping to remove dust accumulations from workspace surfaces
  • Elimination of ignition sources (including static-electrical charge accumulation) in areas susceptible to dust releases
  • Use of inert-gas atmospheres in processing or storage vessels
Methods for mitigating or arresting an incipient dust explosion before major damage occurs include:
  • Spark-detection sensors that trigger explosion-suppression systems
  • Robust vessel construction and fast-acting isolation valves that contain the maximum pressure from an explosion
  • Installation of explosion-relief (also known as deflagration venting) panels and discharge ducts
  • Isolation of dust-hazard areas from one another to prevent propagation and from personnel, where possible

Cleanliness - Next to Godliness

Unfortunately, the greatest dust hazard in many manufacturing facilities is the lack of follow-through on required procedures for good housekeeping. NFPA 654 states that the accumulation of as little as 1/32 inch (0.8 mm) of combustible dust on a horizontal surface is enough to create an explosive mixture if the accumulation gets dispersed into a cloud.

A latent hazard sometimes is turned into a serious danger when a worker elects to use compressed air to hasten a cleanup effort. Unknowingly, the worker suspends the dust into the air, where it may reach its minimum explosible concentration and can find an ignition source. Use of non-powered removal methods (e.g., brooms) or listed vacuum systems designed for handling combustible dusts is recommended.