Wood Business

Features Health and Safety Sawmilling
Building a sustainable and effective combustible dust program

July 12, 2023  By Bill Laturnus

Photo: Annex Business Media.

Combustible wood dust hazards and incidents are significant and at times catastrophic. The 2021 Combustible Dust Incident Report produced by Dust Safety Science list the following global combustible dust incidents that occurred in 2021:

  • Fires: 163
  • Explosions: 53
  • Injuries: 215
  • Fatalities: 69

Of the 216 fires and explosion incidents, 49 (22.7 per cent) of these were wood dust.

The British Columbia sawmilling industry has been developing strategies to address these significant hazards since the two combustible wood dust sawmill explosions in 2012. In the 11 years since the explosions, the B.C. sawmilling industry worked to minimize the potential for catastrophic wood dust explosions in their operations.

Combustible wood dust mitigation program elements

WorkSafeBC lists nine main components for a sustainable and effective combustible wood dust program. These are:

  1. Policy Statement: a statement that formulizes the program and defines overall aims, objectives and responsibilities of the program. Integral in building a sustainable and effective program is senior leadership support and commitment to the program activities.
  2. Wood Dust Risk Assessments: a formalized risk assessment to identify your site specific wood dust hazards. This may be a Dust Hazard Assessment (DHA) or similar industry developed process. Hazard Area Classifications should be included in the risk assessment process.
  3. Controls to Mitigate Identified Hazards: developing controls to mitigate the identified hazards using the hierarchy of controls is an important task that should include knowledgeable workers of the work activities, safety committee members, maintenance staff, operational management staff and third party consultants when there are gaps in mitigation control knowledge.
  4. Inspections: using the risk assessment process learnings of accumulation rates of wood dust helps to determine site inspection frequencies to ensure there are no excessive accumulations of hazardous wood dusts.
  5. Investigations: incorporating wood dust incidents into the investigation process helps to identify issues and the development of improvements to the combustible wood dust program. Near misses, fire events, flash fires and all sizes of deflagrations all need to be formally investigated.
  6. Education, Training & Supervision: a key to the success of the combustible wood dust mitigation and control program is education, training and mentoring for combustible wood dust identification, maximum accumulation thresholds, mitigation strategies for workers, supervisors, managers and contractors.
  7. Program Review and Auditing: formalize in your program an annual review of all sections of the mitigation and control program. Also consider third party auditing to assess the various elements of the mitigation and control activities. Auditing frequencies may be annually or other frequencies such as every three years.
  8. Corrective Action Plans: all combustible wood dust related action plans should be tracked in a corrective action management system. These items should be rated as high risk and be reviewed by all levels of management including senior leadership. Flagging these types of actions as critical and must be addressed by their due dates helps to make the overall program more effective.
  9. Records and Statistics: developing a simple system to control and track relevant records such as housekeeping activities, inspection results, investigations, training and maintenance work order activities allows for quick reference and the development of key performance indicators (KPIs). Tracking KPIs for fire events, excessive accumulations, housekeeping activities, completion of relevant work orders for engineered systems and training compliance helps to develop trend data and leading and lagging indicators.

How B.C. created our industry-based program

 The creation of a sustainable and effective combustible wood dust program for the sawmilling industry took years of collaboration with sawmill industry safety specialists and a recognition that combustible dust mitigation and control needs to be an important focus for all employees every day. The Manufacturing Advisory Group (MAG) members were the driving force that made it happen.

“Safety is shared and we don’t compete on safety” is a main belief of the Manufacturing Advisory Group (MAG) in B.C.

The MAG group began in late 2008 with six founding members. They agreed to meet regularly to share incident statistics for benchmarking and best practices to improve safety performance in all sawmill operations. Today there are 14 member companies that represent over 80 per cent of the sawmilling capacity in B.C. In 2012, two tragic explosions at B.C. sawmills resulted in four workers killed and another 41 workers injured. The sawmill CEOs met to discuss the combustible dust challenges and developed three key action plans:

  • Understand wood dust and its explosive nature
  • Develop a wood dust audit
  • Understand NFPA 664 and the implications to industry.

These action plans were addressed by the group with the help of BC Forest Safety Council, FPInnovations, insurance brokers and industry insurers. A MAG working group was created and in a short amount of time the industry increased their knowledge of the hazards associated with wood dust, shared best practices and created the Combustible Wood Dust Mitigation and Control Audit. To support the activities of the BC Forest Safety Council and MAG group, the CEOs that originally met after the sawmill explosions also formalized their role as the steering committee for the MAG Groups activities.

An ongoing key activity for the MAG group is to share and support best practices for combustible dust mitigation and control. Over time, the MAG Group also expanded their focus to include a dedicated sawmill audit that focuses on five main high-risk activities that includes combustible dust. The CEO steering committee still meets bi-annually to provide leadership and focus and the MAG Group meets quarterly to share injury statistics, incidents, best practices and develop strategies to address industry high risk activities.

Support: you are not alone

For a business or industry groups wishing to create a sustainable and effective combustible wood dust mitigation and control program help is available. BC Forest Safety (BCFSC) will help answer your questions and direct you to the various free online resources available to assist in the building of your program. These can also be found at the links below:

BCFSC: www.bcforestsafe.org/combustible-dust-safety/

Wood Pellet Association of Canada (WPAC): www.pellet.org/safety/

Dust Safety Science: dustsafetyscience.com/

WorkSafeBC: www.worksafebc.com/en/health-safety/hazards-exposures/combustible-dust

Bill Laturnus is a senior safety advisor, manufacturing, with BC Forest Safety Council. blaturnus@bcforestsafe.org

This article is part of Dust Safety Week 2023. To read more articles on dust safety, click here.

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