Research conducted by the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) uncovered an
average of five fatalities and over 28 additional injuries each year
from combustible dust deflagrations and explosions.1 And when
OSHA responded to the spate of large-loss incidents in the middle of
the last decade with its National Emphasis Program (NEP), it found that
there was wide-spread non-compliance with safety standards in the
facilities it inspected. Failure to comply with safety criteria, such as
those found in many of the NFPA "dust standards" for decades, can lead
to large-loss dust explosions.
A combustible solid of sufficiently small average particle size will
propagate a deflagration when suspended in air in a sufficient
concentration and ignited.2 When a deflagration is confined
within an enclosure, the release of heat and combustion products causes
an increase in pressure that can cause the rupture of the confining
enclosure. The deflagration can be more hazardous to people than the
resulting building collapse or missile impact.
The technology for protecting the building occupants from enclosed
vessels such as bins, bunkers, silos, mixers, blenders, and dust
collectors, all of which can pose an explosion hazard, is well known.
The relevant NFPA standards 3,4,5,6,7 stipulate how these
enclosed vessels should be protected. While different standards
prescribe slightly different solutions in some cases, the concepts are
universally applicable across all of the combustible classifications
(agricultural, forest products, metals, sulfur and general dust
including plastics and chemicals).
Where the sundry NFPA standards differ is in the prescribed method
for hazard identification, if any, and the criteria for establishing the
obligation to manage the hazard, especially as it pertains to
occupiable building compartments. In this area there are two changes
occurring in the NFPA dust standards.
The first is a transition from using the term "deflagration" to mean
the expanding fire ball that propagates through the building interior to
the term "flash fire." This later term has been embraced by the process
chemical community and is in both NFPA 654 and NFPA 655. It has not
been embraced in NFPA 664, but is under consideration by the technical
committees responsible for NFPA 61 and NFPA 484.
The second is the development of clear criteria for determining if a
deflagration or flash fire hazard exists in a building compartment. This
determination is critical as hazard management obligations, including
the use of fire resistant clothing for employees, are triggered by
whether the building compartment is a deflagration or flash fire hazard.
For the past two revision cycles, NFPA 654, the general dust document
that covers chemicals, plastics and dusts not covered by other
standards, has used a 1/32nd inch (0.8 mm) layer depth
criterion as the threshold for deeming a building compartment an
"explosion hazard". However, the language used for this purpose was not
as clear as it could have been. NFPA 664, the standard dealing with
forest products, used a 1/8th inch (3 mm) layer depth
criterion. Again, the language used was not as clear as it could have
been. However, when the layer depth criteria in NFPA 654 and 664 are
corrected for net heat of combustion and bulk density, they yield
similar quantities of energy per unit of accumulation area. That
provided a level of internal consistency between documents. Furthermore,
there is no loss history for facilities that comply with these
The hazard determination criteria for the other dust standards are
quite different. NFPA 484, the combustible metals standard, does not
allow any dust accumulation. Neither does the current edition of NFPA
655. However, the 2012 edition of NFPA 655 is adopting language similar
to that in NFPA 654 and 664. Because of the bulk density of powdered
sulfur, the layer depth criterion ends up at 1/16th inch (1.6
mm). An alternate method for hazard assessment is also included in the
new NFPA 655 that based upon accumulated mass. How NFPA 61 and NFPA 484
deal with the hazard determination issue is yet to be seen as both of
these documents are in revision.
The bottom line is that none of the tragic human injury and loss of
life from dust explosions is necessary. None of the loss of facility and
production capacity is necessary. The basic principles of how to
prevent these incidents has been known for decades. Those basic
principles are pan-industrial and are the basis for the prescriptive
criteria in the NFPA occupancy design standards that pertain to dusts.
While the improvements in these NFPA standards is welcome and is
certainly the product of a lot of hard work by numerous dedicated
committee members, with the notable exception of NFPA 61, there is no
loss history in facilities that fully complied with current NFPA dust
standards. NFPA 61 is unique in that it does not have an explicit
fugitive dust layer accumulation criterion that is to be used for
determining where there is a dust deflagration or flash fire hazard
within a building. When considering an agricultural products facility
covered within the scope of NFPA 61, a prudent design engineer will
adopt the dust layer criteria of either NFPA 654 or NFPA 664, corrected
for net heat of combustion and bulk density, for identifying those
portions of the facility where a deflagration or flash fire hazard
Despite having the ability to prevent dust explosions for decades,
they still occur. A major contributing factor is operator awareness.
Operators may be unaware of the hazard posed by combustible dusts,
especially dust accumulations in building interiors. Fire protection
engineers are obligated to apprise clients of this hazard. Any dry,
solid material that is metallic, is edible, is eaten, was once alive, is
derived from fossil life forms or is a compound that is not fully
oxidized (in the chemical sense) is deflagrable if the particle size is
John Cholin is with J.M.Cholin Consultants, Inc.
Status Report on Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program, Office of
General Industry Enforcement, Directorate of Enforcement Programs,
Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Washington, DC, 2009.
Zalosh, R. "Explosion Protection," SFPE Handbook of Fire Protection Engineering, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2008.
NFPA 654, Standard For The Prevention Of Fire And Dust Explosions
From The Manufacturing, Processing, and Handling Of Combustible
Particulate Solids, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2006.
NFPA 664, Standard for the Prevention of Fires and Explosions in Wood Processing and Woodworking Facilities, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2007.
NFPA 655, Standard for Prevention of Sulfur Fires and Explosions, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2007.
NFPA 484, Standard for Combustible Metals, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2009.
NFPA 61: Standard for the Prevention of Fires and Dust Explosions in Agricultural and Food Processing Facilities, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2008.
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The Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) is a professional society for fire protection engineering established in 1950 and incorporated as an independent organization in 1971. It is the professional society representing those practicing the field of fire protection engineering. The Society has over 5,000 members and 100+ chapters, including many student chapters worldwide.