Dust is a part of life.
While not many want to think about it, most household dust is a mix of sloughed-off skin cells, hair, clothing fibers, bacteria, dust mites, bits of dead bugs, soil particles, pollen and microscopic specks of plastic. In our homes it is an annoyance. However, in a commercial or industrial setting, dust is downright dangerous.
The National Fire Protection Association’s Standard 664 outlines a risk of explosion is created when 5% of a surface is covered by dust measuring 500 microns, at a depth of 1/8 inch or more. To put it simply, if you drop a drinking straw on the floor and the dust covers it, there is a risk of explosion.
While it is common knowledge that places like grain elevators, commercial bakeries and lumber mills are at higher risk for dust explosions, other commercial businesses are too. In 1987, 31 people lost their lives when a fire in the London King’s Cross Metro Station started under an escalator.
It is believed a lit match fell between a gap in the panels and ignited grease and litter beneath. In a retail setting, elevators, escalators, venting and exhaust housing are all prime locations for the buildup of dust, grease and other flammable materials.
In an industrial setting exposed roof joists, the tops of light fixtures, heaters, suspended cables, windowsills and electrical enclosures all collect dust and other ignitable materials.
Ironically, the risk increases as height increases. Because fine and dry dust rises with the air currents, the higher the dust, the higher the risk of explosion. This means that many manufacturing buildings, typically designed with high ceilings, are at higher risk. After two years of remote working, layoffs and downsizing, many facilities have opted to forgo maintenance or facility management. This can result in drier spaces, with less airflow and fewer employees present to identify potential hazardous buildups.
Further, the risk posed by dust accumulations in warehouses and semi-autonomous industrial settings is also extremely high. Recently a fire at the QVC warehouse in North Carolina took fire crews 10 days and more than 722 hours to extinguish. While a cause has yet to be determined, local officials identified the “head start” the fire had as one of the reasons for suppression efforts being hampered.
In large facilities such as the QVC warehouse or facilities with a semi-autonomous workforce, humidity is kept low to avoid damage to the machines or materials. As a result, dust that would otherwise stay at lower heights is lifted into areas where the risk is higher and there is less opportunity for discovery.
Left unchecked, or overlooked, dust accumulations at height are susceptible to combustion due to radiant heat. The heat is given off by transformers of light fixtures, electrical wiring, or friction from overhead cranes which can all act as a first ignition source. With the integration of lithium-ion batteries into almost all modern devices, dust explosions and fires have a ready-made source of radiant heat, or in the case of a failure, an ignition source.
While dust bunnies at home are an inconvenience, dust poses real risks in commercial settings. While it may appear harmless, dust just may be the cause of your next fire.
Nicholas W. Siewert is a member of Plunkett Cooney's Product Liability, Torts & Litigation and Construction Law practice groups. His experience includes handling matters involving premises liability, product liability and ...
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