This article originally ran in the July/August 2013 issue of Food Manufacturing.
Gilster-Mary Lee Corp.'s
Pasta Plant: Combustible Dust Explosion
Combustible dust explosions are a real threat to safety in many processing plants. A recent dust explosion at Gilster-Mary Lee Corp.’s pasta processing facility in southern Illinois shines a spotlight on what can happen when proper safety protocol is not followed in facilities where combustible dust is present. This month, we’re taking an in-depth look at that explosion and what other food companies can learn from it.
On October 6, 2011, welding sparks inside Gilster-Mary Lee Corp.’s pasta processing plant in Steeleville, Ill. ignited dust in a dust collector and caused an explosion that injured two workers. OSHA immediately sent safety inspectors to the facility and, six months after the incident, issued its report and a $231,000 fine.
OSHA specifically cited the facility for a failure to inspect its own welding areas for safety and ensure welding occurred in safe areas and with approved welding safety protocol. Creating welding sparks near a combustible dust source is a completely avoidable safety threat.
OSHA also cited the facility for unprotected ductwork, which could carry any potential sparks to distant areas of the facility and faulty wiring methods, both of which, according to the administration, created working hazards that were “likely to cause death or serious harm.”
In order to avoid safety lapses like the one that occurred in Steeleville, processors should audit their own safety procedures and consider possible sources both of sparks and of combustible dust. Using dust collectors is imperative in many food processing facilities, as they help keep air clean for a food safe environment. But proper maintenance of the dust collectors is crucial to ensure safety. Bags and filters should be inspected or replaced according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Processors should consider investing in spark detection systems, which can monitor the environment around dust collectors and signal when conditions are right for an explosion. Some of these systems are capable of extinguishing upstream sparks before they reach the dust collector.
Dust explosions like the one at Gilster-Mary Lee are not uncommon. While further guidance on combustible dust is expected soon as OSHA works to beef up its current rules, industry can look to the administration’s Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program, which was reissued in 2008. The program provides guidance for inspectors working in plants where combustible dust is present and can give processors a peek into what regulators are looking for.
The National Fire Protection Association also has valuable standards for processors, which, if followed, can help to reduce the risk of fires and explosions caused by combustible dust. These rules suggest implementing safety protocol like installing fire walls and smooth interior surfaces where combustible dust might be present.
Combustible dust can present an ongoing danger to processors making certain foods — bread, sugar or grain, for example — but the danger can be mitigated and disasters prevented if food processors invest in the types of equipment and detection systems necessary to process safely and follow guidelines for explosion-proofing their facilities.