May 22, 2015

4 Min Read
History of Dust Explosions

By Kevin Jeffries, Lewellyn Technology

On February 7, 2008, the eyes of the world were opened to the hazards of combustible dust when the Imperial Sugar refinery, located in Port Wentworth, GA exploded. The blast killed 14 people and injured 36 others.

In the five years preceding the Imperial Sugar explosion, there were three other deadly combustible dust explosions: West Pharmaceutical in Kinston, NC; CTA Acoustics in Corbin, KY; and Hayes Lemmerz in Huntington, IN. Combined, these events resulted in 14 deaths and 81 injuries.

Unfortunately, tragic events like these continue to plague the country, leaving in their wake lost lives, countless injuries, and significant business interruptions. The U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board estimates that between 1980 and 2012, there were 331 combustible dust incidents, resulting in 148 deaths and 879 injuries.1

Dust explosions have a history that extends back to the 18th century with the first documented dust explosion on December 14, 1785 in Turin, Italy. Count Morozzo reconstructed the series of events leading up to the explosion and provided remarkable insight into the probable cause of the explosion in a 1795 report featured in the “Memoirs of the Academy of Science of Turin”. The explosion occurred at Mr. Giacomelli’s Bakery Warehouse when flour dust generated during normal handling operations allegedly contacted an ignition source in the form of a lamp mounted to help flour handlers see. The resulting explosion propagated in multiple directions injuring two employees working in the warehouse. We learn in Morozzo’s report that the flour was dry; there was less moisture than usual.  

According to Morozzo’s interview with the bakery owner, the flour was the driest seen in the bakery that year. Morozzo’s account of the explosion also mentions a dispersed cloud of flour originated when flour from the upper portion of the warehouse dropped to the lower portion of the confined warehouse. The report captures the rapid, violent nature of the fire and explosion in great detail. Not only had Morozzo given us the early paradigm for the dust explosion pentagon, his report paints a vivid picture of how deflagration fire and pressure propagate through a confined area.

W. Bartknecht, author of “Dust Explosions Course, Prevention, Protection”, documents that multiple grain or food dust explosions were reported over a 100-year period after Count Morozzo’s account of the Giacomelli Bakery explosion:

Year     Location                       Facility          Dust               Description
1858    Stettin, Poland            Roller Mill    Grain              Mill Building Destroyed
1860    Milwaukee, WI            Mill                Flour               Mill Building Destroyed
1864    Mascoutah, IL             Mill                Flour               Mill Building Destroyed
1869    Germany                      Mill                Pea Flour      Damage to Mill
1887    Hamelin, Germany    Silo               Grain              Silo & Building Destroyed

These historical data points highlight the need for industries handling combustible dusts to increase their level of knowledge and awareness of dust hazards. There is a wide range of investigations, consensus, and regulatory standards EHS and Engineering professionals can reference to help identify, assess, and mitigate combustible hazards. Among these standards and references:

•    US Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (
•    Occupational Safety & Health Administration National Emphasis Program
•    National Fire Protection Association Standards for Combustible Dust:
        o NFPA 654
        o NFPA 61
        o NFPA 484
        o NFPA 664
        o NFPA 68
        o NFPA 69
        o NFPA 499

•    Atmosphere Explosible (ATEX Directives)
        o Directive 99/92/EC – ATEX 137 – “The Workplace Directive”
        o Directive 94/9/EC – ATEX 95 – “The Equipment Directive”

•    International Electrotechnical Commission
        o IEC 60079-10-2:2015 – Explosion Atmospheres

1 US Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board AL Solutions Final Investigation Report

Kevin Jeffries is VP - combustible dust consultant, Lewellyn Technology. Jeffries brings more than 17 years of industry experience in EHS systems development & implementation, specializing in combustible dust fire and explosion prevention, hazard evaluation, contingency planning, EHS culture development, and the development and implementation of written corporate compliance programs. Prior to his time as a combustible dust consultant with Lewellyn Technology, Jeffries was a senior EHS manager for the Kellogg Co., and corporate safety systems manager for Imperial Sugar after the company’s 2008 combustible dust explosion.

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