Preventing Fire and Explosions in the Pharmaceutical Industry

The pharmaceutical industry does much to advance the health and welfare of people across the globe.

The pharmaceutical industry does much to advance the health and welfare of people across the globe. Developing vaccines and medicines to reduce and treat disease is only one part of the industry’s role in enhancing our quality of life. But it is this same contribution that poses an occupational risk to those who work in facilities that manufacture the drugs that help create and maintain wellness.

The greatest threat to workers who manufacture industrial synthetics (such as pharmaceuticals) is fire and explosions. Numerous ingredients used in the formulation of drug solids have proven to be combustible when in dust form. [1] Take, for example, the fiery explosion at the West Pharmaceutical Services plant. The January 2003 blast and subsequent fire raged at the Kinston, North Carolina facility, causing six deaths and injury to dozens more. The source of the explosion was airborne plastic powder dust that accumulated in a hot ceiling shaft. [2]

Disasters such as these occur for many reasons, often because managers and employees are unaware of hidden indoor air quality risks that face them every day. The most important bit of information to know is that industrial dust is highly combustible in any environment where fine particles accumulate, and heat is present. [3] Combustion is a rapid event, one that occurs when particulates are suspended in the air, often in an enclosed location. These explosive incidents can transpire anywhere that dust is present in combination with various ignitable sources such as uncontrolled heat and oxygen.

In a typical incident, a small fire occurs (the primary explosion) from flammable material coming into contact with an ignition source. But if fine particles are present, the dust itself can ignite, causing an even greater explosion to follow (the secondary explosion). This second combustible event can be many times the size and severity of the first, with the potential of doing even greater harm to people, products, and facilities.

The most recent National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) estimates show an average of 37,000 fires at industrial plants and factories each year. [3] Many, if not all, of these fires and explosions could be avoided with proper – and carefully monitored – control measures.
Though these risk factors exist, employees needn’t fall victim to the hazards. Employers who safeguard their workplace do so by following guidelines, such as these, below:
OSHA’s “Three C’s” for fuel and dust fire avoidance [4]:

• Capture dust before it escapes into a work area by using properly designed, installed, approved, and maintained dust collection systems.

• Contain dust within the equipment, systems, or rooms that are built and operated to safely handle combustible dust.

• Clean work areas, overhead surfaces and concealed spaces frequently and thoroughly using safe housekeeping methods    
to remove combustible dust not captured or contained
To underscore their prevention initiatives, OSHA included in their publication, NFPA 654, Standard for the Prevention
of Fire and Dust Explosions from the Manufacturing, Processing, and Handling of Combustible Particulate Solids. [5]
The following are just some of NFPA’s dust control recommendations:

* Minimize the escape of dust from process equipment or ventilation systems;
* Use dust collection systems and filters;
* Use cleaning methods that do not generate dust clouds, if ignition sources are present;
* Develop and implement a hazardous dust inspection, testing, housekeeping, and control program (preferably in
writing with established frequency and methods).

Worker safety efforts are only as good as the IAQ initiatives adopted and implemented. Proactive measures protect workers.

At AIRSInc., we help our customers in the pharmaceutical industry by identifying areas of potential risk and by supplying them with stellar air cleaning products. Call us today for a free estimate with one of our skilled and experienced clean air specialists. [6]