Dust explosion

Which Industries are at Greatest Risk of Dust Explosions?

Combustible dusts in the workplace can lead to potentially fatal explosions that can put employees’ lives at risk, as well as destroying the premises.

The Health and Safety Executive, which governs workplace safety measures in the UK, provides advice on managing explosive dusts with the appropriate safety measures.

Dust explosion© Michael R Ross / Shutterstock

Data reveals around 2,000 workplace explosions across Europe are caused by dust every year, including 50 in the UK, equating to around one per week. While many occur in wood processing and chemical companies, 24% take place in the food industry.

Safety experts say every workplace dust explosion can be prevented with the correct safety procedures. They can occur when certain conditions exist; when the working environment creates combustible dust, which is then dispersed via an oxidiser, such as air, this can cause an explosion. If it’s allowed to gather in a confined space, where there’s a danger of it coming into contact with an ignition source, then the risk of dust explosions and fires increases.

The safety of employees working in hazardous environments where combustible dust is an issue is governed by the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002.


Food manufacturing industry

Over the past three decades, flammable dust in the food manufacturing sector has caused explosions and fires that are responsible for 120 employee deaths.

The dry ingredients that can cause dust explosions in food manufacturing plants include flour, instant coffee, custard powder, dried milk, instant mashed potatoes, sugar, cocoa powder and soup powder.

Any solid food substance that is ground finely can ignite more easily. When it is suspended in air at the relevant concentration and contained within a room or vessel, a sudden explosion is possible. If the explosion isn’t contained, a ball of fire can result.

The concentration of dust that can cause an explosion can be as low as 75 grams of dust in one cubic metre of air.



Woodworking accounts for 24% of explosions. Statistics show woodworking plants are at an extremely high risk of a dust explosion or fire. This can include sawmills, furniture-making businesses and any other workplace where wood is cut.

With plenty of hot machinery in a confined space, this adds extra heat to an already hazardous environment. Just one spark from electrical equipment can ignite a dust cloud, sparking a series of explosions and fires.

A series of dust explosions at Wood Treatment Ltd, a plant at Bosley Mill in Congleton, Cheshire, killed four employees and injured four more. The plant manufactured wood powder and wood fibre products, but three explosions, followed by a devastating fire, caused the human tragedy and also destroyed the plant on 17th July 2015.

The explosion left more than 800 tons of rubble at the site and firefighters had to remain there for more than a month while investigations continued.


Chemical manufacturing

The chemical manufacturing industry is particularly hazardous, as large volumes of plastic and chemical powders are handled daily.

Manufacturers are at a high risk due to both the handling and transferring of powders. The different types of materials used to create formulated products can make it even more hazardous.

Processes including mixing, rolling and coating products for sectors such as pharmaceuticals manufacturing can lead to dust particles being suspended in the air and accumulating at height.

One of the worst chemical dust explosions in the world occurred in 2003, when six employees died and a further 36 suffered injuries at an explosion at West Pharmaceutical Plant in Carolina.

The business manufactured IV parts, syringe plungers and rubber compounding. This meant employees were handling powders such as polyethylene and polyisoprene in large volumes.

The accident report concluded a fine plastic powder had accumulated under the suspended ceiling of a manufacturing area. It ignited and caused an explosion and fire that led to the loss of life, as well as destroying the plant.


Metal processing

The dust and fumes produced by metalworking and fabrication can be highly dangerous.

A deadly dust explosion at a manufacturing plant for aluminium vehicle wheels left one worker dead and six more injured in October 2003.

Accident investigators found a build-up of fine powdered aluminium dust around the production lines at Hayes Lemmerz plant in Indiana had caused an initial dust explosion. As a result, the dust dispersed further, causing a second larger explosion.

It was found the dust had originated in a scrap facility and was a byproduct of the processes at the plant.

When finely powdered aluminium dust is suspended in the air in a high concentration, it becomes extremely combustible.


Aerospace sector

Some combustible dusts, such as titanium, are extremely reactive. Titanium is widely used in aerospace applications and is hazardous for employees, as it can produce sparks when worked. This means anyone employed in titanium processing is at a high risk and business owners must take the necessary precautions to ensure safe working practices are adhered to.

In addition, mixed dusts can create further risks, such as when aluminium and steel dusts are combined, this can generate a thermite reaction that can self-ignite.

Wet filtrations are specifically recommended for these applications, as they use water and a scrubbing action to remove hazardous dusts from the air. The dust is removed from the filtration unit as sludge and can then be disposed of safely through the business’s regular dust disposal service provider.


How do dust extraction systems help?

Companies looking to provide a safe working environment choose AirBench wet filtration systems for flammable dusts. While some combustible and flammable dusts can be captured by a standard filtration system, in certain cases, dry filtration is not recommended.

Using wet downdraught benches and wet filtration systems can extract explosive and flammable dusts safely in all sectors.

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