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Dust Containment & Fire Prevention

In our households, we think of dust as an inconvenience or an allergen.

In a hospital, we think of dust as a potential contaminant.

In a factory, mine, or other manufacturing facility, we should think of dust as kindling.

Between 1980 and 2005, the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board found 281 separate instances of combustible dust workplace fires. These incidents led to the deaths of 119 workers and the injury of 718 more, not to mention the expensive damage they caused to the facilities where they occurred. Between 2008 and 2012, 50 more incidents were recorded, resulting in 29 fatalities and 161 injuries, including incidents in West Virginia, Tennessee, and New Jersey.

Clearly, dust can be much more than an annoyance.

Combustible Dust

If you look at the dust that settles on your TV screen or underneath your bed, you probably do not imagine it to be a potential fire hazard, and it rarely is. However, in the right dust to air concentrations, virtually any type of dust can become combustible. When the dust in the air in, for one example, a sugar factory, ignites, it can burn very quickly and cause a tremendous amount of damage, which means the circumstances that could lead this type of event must be addressed. Some other locales that may find themselves with dangerously combustible dust are things like wood processing and woodworking facilities, combustible metal facilities, facilities that manufacture, process or handle combustible particulate solids, and agricultural and food processing facilities. The National Fire Prevention Association has put out literature specifically designed to address each of these types of facilities.

Combustible Dust vs. Hospital Dust

Normally, we talk about dust containment in a hospital or other healthcare setting. Dust containment carts that are designed to make ceiling access projects easier and safer, or anterooms that keep patients isolated and renovations separate from patients is, of course, a safety issue. However, we should be clear that the dust found in these scenarios is rarely - if ever - present in concentrations high enough to combust.

Dust Containment for Combustible Dust

Because hospital dust containment and infection control is a different animal, the tools that are effective to combat the spread of this type of dust are not necessarily effective in fire prevention. Dust containment and collection are critical in preventing these potentially devastating fires. In fact, the New Jersey explosion listed above was attributed directly to a faulty dust collection system that had been in operation for just four days. The dust collection standards being enacted to prevent these types of fires, according to the NFPA, include “A basis for safety embedded requiring the fuel—in this case dust—to be managed, ignition sources to be controlled, and impact from an explosion to be limited through construction, isolation, and housekeeping.”

We already knew that dust could be dangerous to hospital patients and staff because of the infections that it could potentially carry. These sobering statistics just go to show once again that even the smallest particles can cause immense damage if not properly contained.

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