While the cause of a recent fire and combustible dust explosion at North America, that injured three firefighters, is still undetermined and under investigation, a closer look into the events that occurred that day resulted in valuable lessons learned for the reporting fire department. The fire department was dispatched to an active fire inside a hopper and after making entry into the hopper, the firefighters reported that the fire had been contained. One firefighter even used a thermal imaging camera to check for heat or active fire and reported there was none visible by the camera.

As part of the clean-up process following the fire, maintenance and plant management advised the firefighters to stand on the hopper’s platform to rake the product out from the hopper to the floor of the plant, approximately 10-feet below. While one firefighter was standing on the platform raking, he accidentally activated the emergency button on his radio lapel microphone.  The firefighter then removed his gloves to reset his radio. At this time, two other firefighters noticed a dust cloud forming near the hopper. Shortly after, a large explosion and flash fire occurred, knocking the firefighter on the platform to the floor below. He suffered 1st and 2nd degree burns on his hands and to the right side of his face and right earlobe.

An investigation following the accident found that the direct cause of the firefighter’s injuries was due to the improper wearing of his gear. The collar of his bunker coat was not secured properly and was not zippered to the top of his neck, which resulted in the burns to his head and earlobe.  The burns on his hands resulted from the removal of his gloves to reset his radio. While the process of operating the radio button is easier without gloves, it can be operated with gloves on.

While the direct cause of the fire remains undetermined, an investigation of indirect causes found that at the time of the incident, the maintenance and plant workers did not provide a material safety data sheet (MSDS) to the firefighters. A later review of that MSDS found that the product contained in the hopper, Oasis, is a non-structural plastic-wood composite. The MSDS confirmed that the product is combustible at high temperatures and that dust may form explosive mixtures with air in the presence of an ignition source. The MSDS specifically stated not to generate airborne dust in the presence of an ignition source. The Chief of the fire department did not receive a copy of the MSDS until the day following the incident and stated that had he been provided one at the time of the fire, his tactical decisions would have been different.

Following the investigation, the reporting fire department issued several actions in response to the lessons learned during this fire that include:

  • Review and training of all fire department employees in regards to the proper wearing of all issued protective equipment including bunker gear, hood, SCBA, and mask.
  • Updating policies and procedures for proper wearing bunker gear when working in hazardous environments, including a “mop-up” policy regarding the proper wearing of issued equipment.
  • Instituting a safety officer response program to ensure a safety officer is on-site while tactical objectives take place.

Hopefully, a review of the events leading up to this combustible dust explosion and the lessons learned gained from the investigation, will help to improve the safety of firefighters while performing their duties, even during mop-up operations.

By Jeff Harrington, CEO and Founder of Harrington Group, Inc.