Combustible dust explosion injures 2, prompts $231K OSHA fine

Here’s another tragic reminder that maintenance work, routine or otherwise, can often lead to an injury when companies don’t have the proper procedures in place or workers skip key safety steps. In this case, two workers suffered serious burns in an explosion, resulting in an OSHA inspection and a $231,000 fine. 

Two maintenance workers for Gilster-Mary Lee Corp. in Steeleville, IL, were repairing a hole in a metal trough containing a screw conveyor leaking granulated sugar. The sugar was leaking within several feet of an operational dust collector, which eventually exploded due to a spark from the welding operations.

The workers suffered serious burns on their upper bodies in the explosion.

The explosion and injuries at the pasta manufacturing plant attracted OSHA cops, who conducted an inspection shortly after the October, 2011, incident. Inspectors discovered six violations adding up to $231,000 in penalties.

Most significantly, Gilster-Mary was hit with three willful violations for failure to:

  • eliminate dust deflagration and explosion hazards on indoor dust collectors
  • shut down ducts and conveyor systems during welding operations (which had been responsible for carrying a spark to the nearby dust collector), and
  • ensure electrical equipment installed in areas exposed to combustible dust was approved and safe for those locations.

The company also received three serious violations, including failure to inspect areas where welding was to be performed.

This isn’t Gilster-Mary’s first run-in with OSHA inspectors. The company has been visited 30 times since 2002 and has been hit with 46 violations in that time. OSHA even discovered similar combustible dust and fire hazards in 2008 and 2009.

As a result of the willful violations from this inspection, OSHA placed the company in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program, guaranteeing Gilster-Mary will receive more OSHA visits in the future.

The hazards of maintenance work

This incident highlights the importance of making sure maintenance workers are protected on the job. They’re often working in uncertain conditions — testing machines, trying out repairs, etc. — which can lead to unforeseen hazards.

And when additional hazards like combustible dust are present, it can make the risk of a safety incident that much higher (for more on protecting workers from combustible dust, take a look at OSHA’s Safety and Health Topics on combustible dust).

To help protect maintenance workers, here’s a portion of an OSHA checklist on machine guarding, specifically on maintenance work.

  1. Have maintenance workers received up-to-date instruction on the machines they service?
  2. Do maintenance workers lock out the machine from its power sources before beginning repairs?
  3. Where several maintenance persons work on the same machine, are multiple lockout devices used?
  4. Do maintenance persons use appropriate and safe equipment in their repair work?
  5. Is the maintenance equipment itself properly guarded?
  6. Are maintenance and servicing workers trained in the requirements of 29 CFR 1910.147, lockout/tagout hazard, and do the procedures for lockout/tagout exist before they attempt their task?

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