Earlier this month, a massive explosion and ensuing fire rocked the Perfetti Van Melle candy plant in Erlanger, Kentucky. Though the investigation is ongoing, flammable, combustible dust is the most likely cause.
If you’re thinking “LOL wut? Dust is flammable?” right now, you’re not alone. Processing dust is the cause of numerous similar industrial accidents every year, but most people have no idea that it’s a risk at all—not even those who operate the factories that are affected. This latest incident points to the need for both an increase in specialized safety measures and better public awareness of this admittedly strange hazard.
3rd Shift, Zero Injuries
The explosion took place at about 3 AM on the morning of Friday, 4 December. Firefighters from nearby Point Pleasant, WV, responded quickly. Ultimately, over a dozen units from multiple fire departments were deployed. “Shortly after the first unit got out of the station, they could actually see the fire from the station,” said Point Pleasant Assistant Fire Chief Bill Martin.
Though huge flames could be seen billowing from the Perfetti Van Melle factory, all of the several hundred employees working the overnight third shift escaped, with no significant injuries reported. PPFD battled the three-alarm blaze until roughly 4:30 AM.
“I think the sprinkler system did its job for the most part,” Martin said. “The fire that we saw […] was extinguished with the ladder pipe we had up. The involvement inside the building was actually very limited by the sprinkler system.”
Unsurprisingly, the plant was closed for business the following day. “Until we know exactly what the damages are and what we need to do, we won’t be making any production [sic],” Parfetti Van Melle USA President and CEO Mehmet Yuksek said later that morning.
Dangerous Dust Strikes Back
Perfetti Van Melle is an international candy maker headquartered in Italy. The Erlanger factory manufactures Airheads candy for all North American markets, as well as Mentos mints and a number of other confections. A similar dust explosion occurred at the same plant in 2003. The current incident is under review by Perfetti Van Melle officials.
According to reports, a silo at the facility, used for storing and handling sugar, exploded. Here’s where the unknown dangers of flammable dust come into play. When processed in situations like candy making, granulated sugar breaks down into even smaller particles. Those particles easily become airborne, and, when confined to a limited space like the inside of a storage silo, can reach high levels of concentration. It’s not the dust itself that’s dangerous, necessarily, but the high concentration: a small cloud of sugar dust may catch flame given a source of combustion, but it would burn off quickly and harmlessly; with high concentration in a confined area, that small, quick flame becomes a big one with nowhere to go. Thus, an explosion.
“Any time you’re dealing with any kind of dust or whatever, you have a chance of explosion—that’s always a hazard in that kind of operation,” Martin said.
Truly, dust explosions can happen in any number of factories like the one in Erlanger. Anywhere there’s a material that’s remotely flammable and can be broken down into airborne particles by handling and transport, there’s a possibility of dust explosion. Wood and paper mills, many “solid” food processing plants, etc., are all at risk.
As you might suspect, since isn’t a one-time or first-time thing, there’s already a lot of technology out there specifically designed for preventing combustible dust explosions. Not working in the industry myself, I can’t say how hard it is to apply any of this technology, but I’d wager that it’s way easier than rebuilding an exploded factory. However, as dust explosions are a wholly unknown hazard to many, the impetus for their implementation simply may not be there.
Hopefully, the people at Perfetti Van Melle have learned this lesson. Second time’s the charm!