Chain of Thought

Dusting Off Wreckage of Stupidity to Find Intelligence

The Hoeganaes Corporation plant in Gallatin, Tennessee, is in the business of making dust. Actually, it produces atomized iron powder for industrial customers. So, you would think management knew all about the dangers of combustible dust and would take every measure necessary to protect their 180 workers from dust fires and explosions. The recent deaths of several of those people would argue against that.

An explosion last month that killed two people was the THIRD incident involving combustible dust this year. Two previous events on January 31 and March 29 involved combustible dust flash fires. The most recent disaster happened the day after the funeral of an employee who died from the January fire.

Investigators are still looking into the cause of the latest fire, but it's almost certain that all these incidents involved combustible dust. The May 27th incident started with a leak from a corroded pressurized hydrogen supply pipe. John Astad, an expert on the hazards of combustible dust whom I've quoted in previous blogs, believes the leak form the hydrogen pipe was ignited while workers were lifting the grate, thus causing a jet fire of hydrogen gas.

Photos that appeared in newspaper accounts showed a lift truck's tines being used to lift a grate near the source of hydrogen in the plant. Astad believes a spark caused by the metal-to-metal contact could have caused the conflagration when it met up with the gas leak.

He told me he wonders if the forks were covered with brass- or stainless steel cladding to prevent sparking. He also wonders if this plant uses lift trucks that are rated for use in potentially explosive atmospheres. Given this plant's record, he doubts it. In fact this plant's horrendous safety history goes further back than that January incident.

The plant opened in 1980 and was expanded in 2000. In 1997, a flash fire injured two workers, according to local fire department records. The local newspaper, The Tennesseean, quoted an investigator at the site as saying that flash fires are so common at the plant that as long as they didn't cause injuries, they went unreported. This unsafe and stupid practice apparently became standard operating procedure.

Some have even said OSHA doesn't give due respect to the hazards of combustible dust. In fact in a recent Primary Metal Industries National Emphasis Program directive issued by OSHA, dusts are referred to as hazardous, harmful, even “nuisance,” but the only reference to combustibility is in this reference to earplugs:

“When inspecting melting and pouring operations, CSHOs [compliance safety and health officers] should avoid the use of urethane foam earplugs, which may be combustible.”

That might be funny if combustible dust weren't such a serious issue. Let me know if you or your company has been affected by it. We need an intelligence gathering mission. These incidents don't appear in the papers every day, but when they do it's usually to report a tragedy. Let's try to prevent the stupidity that could cause another one.

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