January 18, 2015
Last updated: Sunday, January 18, 2015, 1:21 AM
A FEDERAL investigation found that a series of mistakes led to a dangerous fire at an East Rutherford ink factory involving combustible dust in 2012. New Jersey needs stronger regulations to avoid potential disasters in the future.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent federal agency that looks at industrial chemical accidents and makes recommendations to governing bodies, released a report
Thursday detailing the problems at the US Ink facility. According to the report, the design and installation of the new dust collection system was done so poorly that it overheated within a few days of being activated, ignited spontaneously and caused an explosion that then released a fireball on seven workers.
Thankfully, no one died; the investigation showed that steps should have been taken to significantly increase the safety of the operation.
"The new system was not thoroughly commissioned. There was no confirmation of whether the system would work as configured, missing opportunities to find potential hazards," investigation supervisor Johnnie Banks said. "The design flaws were not revealed until the dust explosion."
Staff Writer James M. O'Neill reported that another avoidable problem was that the workers were not wearing flame-resistant clothing, even though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that when there are flash fire or explosion hazards.
The investigation showed that US Ink didn't apply for a building permit because it thought a New Jersey building code exemption applied to the equipment. This is where the state needs to act on the CSB's recommendations.
There must be tighter regulations on dust-handling equipment. According to the investigation, New Jersey's current rules exempt "manufacturing, production and process equipment" from higher national fire-protection standards.
Rafael Moure-Eraso, the agency's chairman, said there have been at least 50 incidents involving combustible dust at facilities across the country, killing 29 workers and sending 161 to the hospital, between2008 and 2012. "We consider this to be a national problem," he said.
The agency also wants the state to train local safety officials on the national fire protection standards for combustible dust, since they are the ones making inspections at the facilities.
Increasing the thoroughness of inspections on this industry should not be seen as a burden. The people at risk here are the companies' employees, as well as local officials and emergency responders, who will have to deal with the consequences when a fiery incident like the 2012 one occurs.
Employees at US Ink suffered first- and second-degree burns and eventually returned to work. The next time this happens, the situation could be even more tragic.