Dust to Ashes—It Shouldn't Happen.

May 31, 2011
John Astad thinks a lot about iPads these days, but not for the same reasons most people do. He's haunted by the deaths of three people who lost their lives during the production of these kinds of gadgets. He's haunted by the fact that the explosion that ...

John Astad thinks a lot about iPads these days, but not for the same reasons most people do. He's haunted by the deaths of three people who lost their lives during the production of these kinds of gadgets. He's haunted by the fact that the explosion that killed these people didn't have to happen. Astad knows a lot about workplace explosions—ones caused when dust ignites. As director and research analyst at the Combustible Dust Policy Institute in Santa Fe, Tex., Astad knows more about this occupational hazard than most people do.

And what he knows about this accident is not only that it didn't have to happen, but that it will probably keep happening at other plants in other parts of the world, including right here in the U.S. The one involving the iPad line happened at a plant in China owned by Foxconn, a subsidiary of Taiwan-based Hon Hai Precision. They also do work for Dell and H-P. The people on this particular production line were responsible for putting the shiny finish on these electronic toys—a process that produces ultra-light aluminum dust particles.

“The irony of it all, is the May 6 published research report by SACOM, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour, which made note of industrial hygiene problems at such plants in a short paragraph about aluminum dust in the workplace,” Astad wrote in a recent blog post. “I know that if many here in the ComDust group were made aware of this report prior to the recent dust explosion, instead of after the fact, then we could have provided SACOM with a heads up on potential explosion hazards. Maybe some lives could have been saved. I don't know and never will know.”

Foxconn has made news in the past for reasons other than its productivity. According to SACOM's report, at least 13 employees died of apparent suicides last year. And MH&L's editorial director, Dave Blanchard noted in a column last year that “the management practices at Foxconn are so abhorrent that 14 employees have committed or attempted suicide, all of them by jumping out of windows.”

Where combustible dust is concerned, U.S. manufacturers are not models of safety either. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), since 1980, nearly 150 workers have been killed and more than 850 injured in combustible dust explosions. To explore methods for preventing such explosions, OSHA invited outside experts to participate in a Combustible Dust Expert Forum in early May and will use their views to develop possible regulatory options for addressing combustible dust hazards.

John Astad told me he has a couple problems with this meeting. First, none of the “Experts” came from an industry where combustible dust is most common, i.e., metal, food or wood. Second, no one from a professional fire service was involved. The experts who were there included National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) ComDust Technical Committee members, insurance industry representatives, an academic, and two from organized labor. “So an organized labor official knows more about combustible dust fires at manufacturing facilities than the professional fire service?,” Astad asks.

One big problem I saw after looking at a meeting summary was that even among the experts on hand, not all of them were in accord about this particular occupational hazard. According to this summary, posted by Conversion Technology, Inc, some members of the panel suggested that dust with low explosive properties and hard-to-ignite dust should possibly be excluded, or at least should be addressed differently than more hazardous and easily ignitable dust. Other members of the panel warned that there is no technical support for this exclusion, and pointed out that a number of serious dust fire and explosion events have occurred due to what were thought to be “low-hazard” dusts.

I hope OSHA talks to John Astad—even though he is an outspoken critic of OSHA's current combustible dust rulemaking process. His biggest problem with the agency's procedures is that they tend to focus on dust explosions and neglect dust fires, which are the precursors to explosions.

“The [OSHA] data conflicts with the 2006 CSB Dust Hazard Study that notes fatalities and injuries from both combustible dust fires and explosions,” he blogged recently. “In stark contrast, the OSHA ComDust rulemaking process press releases state fatalities and injuries are solely from dust explosions.”

He followed up with another post asking colleagues “Does it matter if OSHA manipulates fatality and injury data for combustible dust incidents in the rulemaking process?”

I'll pass that question on to you. And if you think combustible dust doesn't concern you, I'll add a few more questions. Do you have a workplace? Do you have dust—any kind of dust—in that workplace? Do you have sources of ignition in that workplace—like internal combustion engine lift trucks? If you can answer yes to all of those, you have your work cut out for you. If possible fires and explosions don't bother you, just think of poor productivity. Where there's dust there's probably clutter too—and wasted space and time.