The Standard in Risk Abatement

The National Fire Protection Association has advised facilities about the risks associated with combustible dust for nearly 100 years. NFPA 652 is its latest effort to mitigate risks and prevent catastrophe.
By Tim Portz | July 11, 2017

According to data from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), there were 50 combustible dust incidents in American workplaces from 2008 to 2012. Collectively, these incidents injured 161 people and claimed 29 lives. This sobering statistic was cited by Guy Colonna,  division manager at the National Fire Protection Association, in his March 2015 NFPA Journal article “Credible Risk,” in which he outlined the motivation for and development of NFPA standard 652, Fundamentals of Combustible Dust.

Those statistics are not an anomaly, Colonna tells Biomass Magazine. When statistics from a longer time frame are examined, results are similar. In 2006, the CSB published a comparable report that found from 1980 to 2005, there were 281 incidents, or over 10 per year. The frequency and volume of these events led the CSB to the conclusion that combustible dust presentsed an ongoing and persistent threat to American workers and businesses.

“To me, the most crucial thing, when you look at investigations like those from the CSB, or similar studies and statistics from places like the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, is that there is a common thread, and that’s an apparent lack of understanding of the enormity of the hazards of combustible dusts, when all of the variables necessary for a reaction come together and event occurs,” Colonna says.

For a combustible dust reaction to occur, a relatively complex sequence and chain of events must take place, Colonna points out. “For example, if you look at risk, risk is a combination of two variables. One is frequency, the other is magnitude. What tends to happen is that combustible dust incidents involving explosions are on the fairly low order when it comes to frequency, but the consequences are very high. Ignitions and small fires happen easier and require fewer variables to occur, but their magnitude is far less. Just about anyone can respond and deal with them. The complicated nature of a dust explosion tends to make people complacent, and they struggle to believe that something like that could happen at their facility, with their process. It only takes one incident however, and everyone becomes a believer.”

Raising the level of understanding throughout industry is emphasized in the NFPA’s mission, “We help save lives and reduce loss with information, knowledge and passion.” This is carried out via the creation of over 300 different codes and standards, all written and revised according to strict procedural guidance from the American National Standards Institute.

Some of NFPA’s codes are broad in scope. NFPA 1, for instance, is simply Fire Code, while others have more specific titles and purviews, like NFPA 25, Standard for the Inspection, Testing and Maintenance of Water-Based Fire Protection Systems.

The NFPA has been producing standards for dust since the 1920s, with the early standards focusing on coal dust and agricultural milling. Prior to development of NFPA 652, the association maintained five standards on managing dust and its associated risks—NFPA Standards 61, 484, 654, 655 and 664—with four of them focusing on specific sectors. For instance, NFPA 655 focuses exclusively on sulfur dust, while NFPA 484 focuses on combustible metals. Each of these documents deliver incredible value to their respective industries, but Colonna recognized a need for a unifying document that outlined the common hazards presented by combustible dust, regardless of the nature of their industry. This document became NFPA 652, Standard on the Fundamentals of Combustible Dust.

In the standard’s opening pages, the story of its development is outlined, and its purpose is articulated. The standard references the five industry-specific standards already in place, but asserts that “some users of the NFPA commodity-specific standards believed that the requirements were inconsistent between the various industry sectors and the dust types, leading to confusion in determining which standard applied and how to protect similar hazards within a given process.” In response to this situation, the NFPA established the Technical Committee on the Fundamentals of Combustible Dust, whose charter was to create a standard that unified the common practices across the four sector-specific standards, and direct people back to those sector-specific standards when appropriate. Working alongside this committee was another committee, comprised of representatives from each of the sector-specific standards, to oversee the work to develop and revise NFPA 652, as well as ongoing revisions in the sector-specific standards.

Work on NFPA 652 began in 2012. Task groups were used to develop draft chapters based on an outline proposed by the committee. These draft chapters, and the early outline, were used by the committee to win go-forward approval from the NFPA’s Standards Council to formally establish the standard and its revision cycle. The standard was initially approved for inclusion in the 2014 cycle, but was held until the 2015 cycle because the technical committee felt it needed more time to review the extensive public comments offered. Standard 652 was finally issued by the Standards Council in August 2015, and approved by ANSI the following September.

Standards, Not Regulations
The standards developed by the NFPA are voluntary, and meant to provide technical information and guide behavior. The NFPA has no enforcement authority, and cannot levy fines or other punishments to parties and facilities that do not align their dust management protocols with those outlined in NFPA standards. In two separate incident reports generated by the CSB for events that occurred in 2003 and 2006, the board concluded that “incidents would have been prevented or consequences mitigated” had the facilities complied with existing NFPA standards. The CSB took the conclusions a step further, recommending that OSHA develop a federal standard to address the workplace hazards associated with combustible dust. The federal standard could reference NFPA standards, but would differ in that an OSHA standard would be enforceable through inspection and fines.

OSHA took no regulatory action on the CSB’s recommendations until 2008, when an explosion and fire destroyed the Imperial Sugar refinery in Savannah, Georgia, killing 14 people. The event served as a catalyst to, once again, look at the CSB’s recommendations, and OSHA launched a national emphasis program on combustible dust that leveraged existing NFPA standards in two ways. First, the standards were used by OSHA compliance teams to better understand where to find dust hazards within the facilities it was inspecting. Next, the standards served as a jumping-off point for compliance teams to make recommendations to those facilities for risk abatement strategies.

While the national emphasis referenced and utilized existing NFPA standards in an advisory capacity, it lacked the teeth of enforceable regulation, and in October 2009, OSHA published an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) that suggested the existing NFPA standards may serve as the backbone or reference for more stringent regulation. The ANPR set into motion an inquiry into the feasibility of using the NFPA standards as the basis for a regulation, and asked the question of whether or not the existence of multiple, sector-specific standards would introduce confusion to the process. In part, this question gave rise to the development of Standard 652, a unifying standard that OSHA, if it chose, could reference in regulation.

Absent an enforceable federal regulation, the best practices and technical expertise generated by existing or developing NFPA standards rely largely upon state and local fire codes to influence and impact behavior in industrial settings. Time and time again, in investigative reports produced after explosion and fire incidents at industrial facilities, the CSB arrives at the same conclusion—that local or state fire codes already direct facilities toward existing NFPA standards for guidance on managing combustible dust. “Whether you are using NFPA 1 or the International Fire Code, both documents point to the NFPA standards on combustible dust,” Colonna says. “Not so much 652, because that is newer, but the sector-specific standards are already embedded into local fire codes. It becomes a question of awareness among the industries, and then, for those specific documents, implementation from an enforcement standpoint at the state and local levels. In several occasions in states that have had incidents, that is why one of the recommendations the CSB has made is for state fire marshals to have training so that they can inspect for combustible dust hazards.”

Now, the open question is whether or not there is an appetite within OSHA to take on combustible dust, and roll out a federal regulation on its management. The ANPR on combustible dust published in October 2009 remains on the books at OSHA, but very little has happened since the ANPR was issued. On its website the Chemical Safety Board states, “The CSB believes that a general industry standard for combustible dust is greatly needed to prevent future tragedies. OSHA commenced rulemaking in October 2009; however, the agency has yet to issue a proposed rule. Moreover, the next step in the rulemaking process, the convening of a Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act panel, has been postponed several times.”

Colonna doesn’t see that occuring in the near-term. “I’m very convinced that there won’t be much happening within OSHA with respect to the proposed rule that has been on the books since October 2009,” he says. “The movement that we are up to, procedurally, is that OSHA should complete its economic assessment, and that hasn’t moved off of dead center for a couple of years. I don’t see a lot of sentiment to pursue that any further right now—it is still a long way away.”

The Value of Awareness
For now, Colonna and the NFPA are choosing to focus on the spirit of their mission, to “help save lives and reduce loss with information.” While OSHA has not moved forward with the rulemaking that it announced in 2009, there is an existing National Emphasis Program for combustible dust that specifically cites NFPA standards. The first NEP for combustible dust was published in October 2007 and reissued in March 2008, after a loss-of-life incident at a sugar refinery.

Colonna sees the reference to NFPA standards within the NEP as a means to accomplish two important tasks. First, the standards provide a pathway to the sources of potential hazards of combustible dust within facilities for workers, owners and inspectors. Second, the standards provide the most current guidance on the technologies and approaches that can be used to abate those hazards. 

“There is quite a reliance on the standards already, with or without a federal rulemaking step,” Colonna says. “With respect to the purpose of Standard 652, the reason I proposed we create it was so that we could have a single source for all of the fundamental hazard characterization and fundamental hazard control steps we should be taking at facilities where solids processing happens, and some form of combustible dust is created, and needs to be managed. In the absence of an OSHA rulemaking, 652 and our other dust standards remain the best technical documents available. It is the most current document with the greatest potential to respond to changes in the technology.”

Within the first 10 pages of Standard 652 there is a flow chart that directs a reader through a sequence of yes/no questions. These questions help a reader determine whether or not their facility has a combustible dust that, left unmanaged, could introduce risk into their operation. Depending upon the responses, the reader either learns that they do not have a combustible dust that could introduce risk into their operation, or they are directed to other sections of the 652 or the sector-specific standards on combustible dust. Colonna recalls the development of the flowchart, and the reaction of the committee once it was finalized and published. “There was a high level of satisfaction with the idea that they were putting this kind of a tool in the beginning of a brand new document,” he adds. “It was a way of saying that we hope this helps people better understand what they should do.”

Author: Tim Portz
Executive Editor, Biomass Magazine