Combustible Dust & OSHA Inspection

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has placed an emphasis on combustible dust hazards in recent years—and for good reason. Combustible dust has resulted in numerous deadly incidents over the years. While no OSHA standard directly addresses combustible dust, this has not hindered OSHA inspections and enforcement actions.

In the absence of specific guidance, OSHA has relied on the General Duty Clause and referenced the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards when citing employers for combustible dust hazards.

There are proactive steps employers can take before, during and after OSHA inspects a facility where combustible dust may be present to help reach and maintain compliance.

What is Combustible Dust?

OSHA defines combustible dust as “a solid combustible material, composed of distinct pieces or particulates that presents a fire or deflagration hazard when suspended in air or some other oxidizing medium over a range of concentrations, regardless of particle size or shape.” When suspended in the right concentration and exposed to an ignition source, these dust particles can lead to fires, deflagrations or explosions that can cause chain reactions throughout a facility—and with potentially deadly results.

General Duty Clause

The General Duty Clause (GDC) requires an employer to provide each employee with “employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” The GDC applies to all OSHA-regulated employers, which includes most private sector employers. OSHA routinely relies upon the GDC when a specific OSHA standard is not set forth relative to a particular hazard.

For OSHA to successfully cite a GDC violation, the relevant hazard must be:

  1. Recognized by the industry or the employer;
  2. Have caused, or be likely to cause, death or serious physical harm; and
  3. Have a feasible means available to correct the hazard.

OSHA has cited the NFPA combustible dust standards as evidence of all three GDC requirements. Many OSHA combustible dust citations also involve poor hazard communication, substandard housekeeping, undermaintained electrical components, a lack of appropriate personal protective equipment or a lack of fire extinguishers.

Pre-Inspection Considerations

As with any regulatory inspection, good preparation is key to being able to weather an OSHA inspection, especially one in which combustible dust may be an area of focus.

Every combustible dust compliance issue presents multiple approaches, and only a properly conducted Process (Dust) Hazard Analysis will provide the necessary guidance to determine the proper approach. Such an analysis can be costly and time consuming, but it still outweighs the costs of OSHA penalties and mandatory abatement measures.

If your facility falls into one of the industries (or SIC codes) listed in Appendix D-1 or D-2 of the NEP, having a recent Dust Hazard Analysis, or a written explanation of why one is not required, can be helpful in the event of an OSHA inspection. In addition to in-house resources and qualified independent safety and health consultants, employers also can take advantage of voluntary state consultation programs or safety and health reviews offered by many insurers to assess and understand combustible dust risks.

Having well trained and prepared employer representatives is also important. Employer representatives should be identified ahead of any inspection and should include at least one back up representative in case someone is unavailable.

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