Canadian Biomass Magazine

Features Pellets
Building a combustible dust incident database

October 30, 2018
By Chris Cloney


Oct. 30, 2018 - I was recently struck when reading the article Learning from close calls: NB mill takes action after two fires, at the willingness of the company involved to not only state that they had a near-miss incident, but to explain in detail their lessons learned from the fires.

On June 1, 2018, Fornebu Lumber in Bathurst, N.B. had two fire incidents. The first occurred when a piece of wood was jammed in a planer. Although this was cleared by operators, they did not know that the blower and ducting had transferred embers outside to the dust collector system, which caused a second fire.

Both fires were eventually extinguished with no injuries and minimal damage to the facility, although it could have been much worse.

In his article, Christian Fournier, the safety and training co-ordinator at Fornebu Lumber, shares several lessons learned so that other companies in the Canadian forest industry can improve their performance and keep their people safe.

How would process safety across the nation be impacted if more companies in Canada were open to sharing and learning from these incidents? What if we went outside the borders and tried to understand incidents across the globe — what impact could this have on safety here at home?

For the last two years, DustEx Research Ltd. has focused on tracking, capturing, and generating lessons learned from combustible dust fires and explosions. In the first six months of 2018, they recorded 75 fires, 14 explosions, nine injuries, and one fatality in North America. Internationally, an additional 14 fires, 12 explosions, 31 injuries, and eight fatalities were found.

This information is being compiled into an open, free-to-use, online database so that operators, technical specialists, and safety professionals can search, sort, and understand the industries, materials, and equipment most often involved in dust fires and explosions.

Although more information over time is required to draw strict conclusions, some observations from the first half of 2018 include:

• The number of dust explosions in North America appears to be increasing compared to historical data although the severity may be decreasing.

• Wood processing, food processing, and agricultural activities account for 60 per cent of the fire and explosion incidents.

• Around the world, dust collectors accounted for the highest number of fires (25) and had a modest number of explosions (3).

• Storage silos, elevators, and conveyors accounted for the highest number of explosions (14) and had a more moderate number of fires (15).

• Wood and wood processing had the largest number of high-damage incidents (reported greater than $1 million in losses) while agriculture and food production had the largest number of high-severity incidents (reported injuries and fatalities).

This information is useful for understanding the current status of combustible dust safety and categorizing the fire and explosion incidents observed. It also gives us a yard-stick to measure our progress as a community.

However, it is also limited in the scope of the lessons learned. The majority of incidents are reported from local news media who may have a limited, or incorrect understanding of the processes involved. When more detailed forensic investigation is completed, this information is generally not shared with the community.

Improving the incident reporting platform with more in-depth analysis of ignition sources, process safety deficiencies, progression of the fire or explosion in time, and the human elements involved, are all goals for the next phase of the database development. Combined with an openness and willingness from the community to share lessons learned from past near-misses, this platform will serve to reduce financial and personal losses from combustible dust fires and explosions across Canadian industries.

We encourage you to learn most about the Combustible Dust Incident Database and download the incident reports free at

Dr. Chris Cloney is the director of DustEx Research Ltd. based in Halifax.