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Safety And Security

Exploding dust

September 19, 2010
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The jury is still out regarding how much the downturn in the economy is going to impact the JanSan industry, including building service contractors (BSCs).

In the past, the impact of downturns has been minimal; however, there is no guarantee that will be the case this time around.

As a result, many BSCs are looking for new opportunities and new customers.

One company in Northern California found a niche by calling on design and architectural firms.

Understanding the special needs of these firms led to referrals that have kept this BSC busy and growing.

Another found opportunity knocking by calling on mega-movie theaters.

Apparently, in an attempt to cut back on the number of employees, some big theater chains now outsource janitorial work.

Another option some BSCs are looking into is industrial cleaning.

Usually this entails cleaning a small- to medium-sized office with the major duties focused around the assembly plant area, warehouse, shipping area, and other industrial areas.

"Industrial facilities are also scaling back," says Richard Sanchez, a BSC in Northern California. "One way they do this is to outsource whatever possible."

Although theaters and architectural/design firms have their own special cleaning needs, the maintenance of industrial facilities can be more involved, with safety issues being a much greater priority.

This is because industrial locations generate considerable amounts of dust, which under certain conditions can be combustible, resulting in fires, injuries, and even deaths.

Dust explosions: A historical view
In February 2008, an explosion in a Georgia sugar refinery killed six workers and injured 42 others.

The building was declared unsafe and essentially had to be rebuilt, shutting down operations for months.

A similar incident occurred in North Carolina in January 2003 when an explosion in a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant also killed six people and sent 38 to the hospital.

In both cases, the cause was dust.

It is estimated that in the past 20 years there have been nearly 300 plant explosions in the U.S. that were caused by combustible dust.

Although the types of dust varied, the root cause, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), was that "all the dust was made up of potentially combustible materials that explode when coming into contact with heat, electricity, or some other trigger."

Dust explosion pentagon
According to the NFPA, in most cases, for a dust explosion to occur, five conditions, referred to as the "dust explosion pentagon," must be in place. These are:

  • The potentially explosive dust is suspended in air.
  • The concentration is large enough to allow for an explosion to occur.
  • Oxygen is present in sufficient amounts.
  • There is an ignition source.
  • The dust is located in an enclosed space.

In an industrial facility, the right conditions for an explosion may be more common than one realizes.

There are a variety of ignition sources depending on what kind of work is being performed in the facility, the equipment used, the age of the facility, and other conditions.

Often, the sources include such things as hot surfaces, steam-heated pipes, overheated tools and equipment, welding and cutting equipment, and even smoking if it is in or too near the actual work area.

Facility managers and factory workers can help reduce explosions by being aware and removing potential ignition sources.

Additionally, BSCs play a key role in preventing explosions.

Industrial vacuuming
"I would avoid dust mopping the floor in an industrial facility as much as possible," says Mark Cuddy, Eastern region director of sales for Tornado. "This is where the dust is and dust mopping stirs it up and makes it airborne, which is one of the key conditions that result in an explosion."

Instead, Cuddy suggests that BSCs use industrial wet/dry vacuums, especially in large facilities.

By the end of a shift, he says, work areas, equipment, and floors may be covered with various particles.

"Some BSCs will purchase a wet/dry vac at a hardware store; however, these are not made for this type of cleaning," Cuddy says. "The best bet is to consult with a JanSan distributor."

According to Cuddy, some things to consider when selecting an industrial wet/dry vac include:

  • The air compressor should generate a minimum of 25 horsepower — 30 to 60 psi for light wet recovery and 60 to 100 psi for maximum pickup.
  • More advanced powerheads are often recommended because they have improved waterlift and vacuuming capabilities.
  • The vacuum should have a 55-gallon drum to minimize how often it must be emptied.
  • Machines with a "ribbed" drum have proven to be stronger and hold up better in industrial cleaning situations.
  • The drum should have an industrial drain valve located at the bottom of the machine to empty liquids.

In some industrial settings, a wet/dry vacuum may not be needed or may be needed only at certain times.

Because dust mopping should be avoided, a safer and still effective floor cleaning option is to use manually operated sweeping equipment.

Although they have been around for years, a new generation of manually operated sweepers are now available that not only sweep, but are proving effective at trapping dust within the machine, preventing it from becoming airborne.

Cuddy suggests selecting one of these newer sweeping systems with multiple rotating brushes.

"This allows them to clean corner areas of the floor as well as edges," notes Cuddy. "These new systems are designed to ‘upsweep'' dust into a pan, where it is stored until emptied."

A big benefit for BSCs is that these systems can also significantly improve worker productivity.

In some studies, a manually powered sweeping system cleaned as much as 30,000 square feet in an hour.

This improves worker productivity and helps BSCs bid on such jobs more competitively.

The legalities of industrial cleaning
BSCs should also know that in some localities there may be specific rules and regulations regarding the maintenance of industrial facilities.

Most of these are to promote worker safety and help prevent dust explosions.

However, these vary from location to location.

On a national level, there are few regulations covering dust-related problems in industrial facilities.

"This makes it all the more important that BSCs do their homework and learn about industrial cleaning before venturing into this field," says Cuddy. "It can be lucrative and there may be definite opportunities in industrial cleaning, but your own safety and others'' safety must always come first."

Beth Pullin is a writer specializing in the professional cleaning, building, and health care industries. She may be reached at (773) 525-3021.

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