Last week’s fatal explosion at a Chinese factory that makes Apple’s iPad2 thrust combustible dust onto the international stage of workplace safety concerns.

Officials of FoxConn Technologies, which operates the facility, believe that an accumulation of aluminum dust in the polishing department ignited the blast. Three workers were killed and 15 others were injured. There were reports that the polishing room’s windows were kept shut and that workers could actually see dust particles floating in the air.

While this tragedy took place half-a-world away, in a country with far less stringent workplace safety rules than here in the United States, it nonetheless dramatizes the deadly potential of combustible dust that is allowed to accumulate in a factory setting.

Don’t Become a Wood ComDust Statistic The deadliest combustible dust incident in recent U.S. history took place in February 2008 at the Imperial Sugar mill in Port Wentworth, GA (shown). A massive explosion killed 14 workers and injured more than 30 others. Other recent ComDust tragedies we have reported on include the April 2010 coal dust explosion at Massey Energy’s coal mine in Upper Big Branch, WV, that killed 29 miners and a January 2011 metal dust blast that killed an employee of Hoeganaes Corp.’s plant in Gallatin, TN.

Through our website, we have posted several stories of suspected wood dust explosions. Fortunately, none of them resulted in deaths or serious injuries.

ComDust Rule in the Works
One after the Imperial Sugar tragedy, the Occupational Safety and Health Adminisration, pressed by members of Congress, reissued its Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program. Since then, OSHA has staged a series of public meetings and webcasts to collect information and comments from stakeholders that will be considered in crafting a national combustible dust standard.

In the interim, we have noticed that OSHA inspectors are paying much closer attention to combustible dust issues in their site visits. We have reported on dozens of wood and wood-related companies that have been cited and fined by OSHA for combustible dust hazard violations.

Earlier this month, Huntsville American Cabinets of Huntsville, AL, was cited by OSHA for “failing to keep walls, floors and equipment clean and free from the accumulation of combustible dust” among 21 total safety and health violations. In April, RY Timber Inc., a manufacturer of 2x4 studs, was cited and fined for five repeat and four serious violations, including exposing workers to combustible dust hazards.

Keep a Clean Shop
Sawdust is a natural byproduct of machininpg and sanding wood. It is critical to abate for a variety of reasons -- first and foremost for the comfort, health and safety of the workforce. It is also critical to capture dust to prevent it from contaminating finishes and other wood processes.

So don’t wait for OSHA to roll out its new dust standard or to be caught off guard by a surprise OSHA inspection. Don’t become a combustible dust statistic.

Make sure your dust collection system is adequate for your operation and is being maintained to operate at peak efficiency. In addition, wood plant managers have to be mindful of scheduling regular and thorough plant maintenance that includes cleaning rafters and other horizontal surfaces that can be a hiding place for fugitive dust accumulations. And be sure the vacuum used to suck up fugitive dust is industrial grade.

When it comes to combustible dust, a clean plant is a safe plant.

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