“The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labor.” — George Orwell
Yesterday afternoon, I was asked what I knew about the granary explosion that happened in Poland, killing two workers.
I hadn’t heard of it, but my thoughts immediately went to NFPA 652, the National Fire Protection Association’s Standard on the Fundamentals of Combustible Dust. Was the NFPA standard available in Polish? Was there anything that would compel a Polish grain handling facility to follow best practices for preventing a dust explosion?
It turns out that it wasn’t a dust explosion that killed the two workers. It was a missile from the Russian War on Ukraine. The Ukraine border is less than 4 miles (6 km) away from the town of Przewodow, Poland.
Why Attack a Granary?
News reports quickly attributed the explosion and fatalities to a Russian missile. Russia denied shooting at Poland, a NATO member state, and President Biden stated in a news conference that the trajectory of the missile indicated that it was not fired from Russia. Instead, subsequent reports suggested that the projectile, an old Russian missile that was part of the Ukrainian air defense arsenal, was fired by Ukrainians attempting to shoot down a Russian missile that had been fired at Ukraine.
So, at 3:40 pm local time on Tuesday, November 15, 2022, a Russian missile, fired by Russians or Ukrainians, killed two Polish workers at a small, local spichlerz.
And we Americans complain about the difficulties of keeping our workers safe.
That the missile struck a granary in Przewodow, Poland was bad luck. It could just as easily hit the village tawerna, where workers stop in for a cold beer before going home for dinner. Or it could have struck an empty field and not made the international news at all.
Remember the Maine!
Increasingly, the incident in Poland is being seen as an accident. Just as well. Wartime is a time of reckless destruction and disregard for safety; escalating the war will not make that less true. That the war hasn’t escalated already, though, is more likely due to a fundamental reluctance to escalate the war than a dedication to thoughtful and thorough root cause analysis of the incident.
Remember the Maine. If you don’t, the Maine was a U.S. battleship that blew up in Havana Harbor at 9:40 pm on February 15, 1898. Of the 350 crew and officers aboard the ship, 266 perished in the explosion.
It was immediately reported as an accident, but many were eager to pin the blame on Spain. Especially two media tycoons, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, because the notion that the explosion was caused by a Spanish mine or torpedo would sell more newspapers that an accident would. The U.S. declared war on Spain, and within months, a defeated Spain ceded Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam to the U.S.
While there are conspiracy theorists to this day who argue that the explosion was deliberate, the question was addressed in a 1976 investigation led by U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover, whose team concluded that the explosion was caused by a smoldering coal bunker fire aboard the ship that ignited the ammunition in an adjacent bunker. Instead of recognizing the problem and working to address it so other coal-fired ships did not explode, the U.S. blamed Spain, which served political interests at the time. Blaming Russia now? I’m no fan of Putin and his war, but I am acutely aware that, as the Greek dramatist Aeschylus put it 2500 years ago, “The first casualty of war is truth.”
What About Dust Explosions at Granaries?
The explosion in Przewodow, Poland was probably not a grain dust explosion. But grain dust explosions continue to happen all around the world. In Poland, in Ukraine, in Russia, in the United States. While there is little a granary operator can do to prevent a missile from striking their facility, there is much that can be done to prevent dust explosions.
Which brings us back to NFPA.
My initial thoughts upon learning of the explosion at the granary in Poland were of NFPA 652. They should have been of NFPA 660, Standard for Combustible Dusts. NFPA is consolidating several NFPA standards into NFPA 660. The older standards will then become obsolete. The older standards include
- NFPA 61, Standard for the Prevention of Fires and Dust Explosions in Agricultural and Food Processing Facilities,
- NFPA 484, Standard for Combustible Metals,
- NFPA 652, Standard on the Fundamentals of Combustible Dust,
- NFPA 654, Standard for the Prevention of Fire and Dust Explosions from the Manufacturing, Processing, and Handling of Combustible Particulate Solids,
- NFPA 655, Standard for the Prevention of Sulfur Fires and Explosions, and
- NFPA 664, Standard for the Prevention of Fires and Explosions in Wood Processing and Woodworking Facilities
Consolidating so many pieces into a comprehensive standard means that the final standard is going to cover a lot of ground: agriculture and food processing (including grain dusts), combustible metals, particulate solids, sulfur, and wood dusts will each have their own chapter. The chapter that warrants immediate attention, however, is Chapter 7, Dust Hazards Analysis, along with Annex B Dust Hazards Analysis – Example.
In those sections, the standard repeatedly calls attention to the conditions for a flash fire (unconfined) or explosion (confined):
- A combustible particulate solid of sufficiently small particle size
- Air or other oxidizing atmosphere
- A credible ignition source
- A credible suspension mechanism
A dust hazard analysis (DHA) is about identifying the parts of a process where those conditions exist and then mitigating those hazards.
Avoiding Work-Related Fatalities
Whether you are in war-torn Ukraine or one of its neighboring countries, or if you are in the relative peace of North America’s breadbasket, the harm caused by a combustible dust explosion can and should be avoided. As the NFPA standard puts it, “The absence of previous incidents shall not be used as the basis for not performing a DHA.” Likewise, the presence of military incidents should not be used as the basis for not performing a DHA. Even in times of war, work-related fatalities will often outnumber combat-related fatalities.
Anyone dealing with the recognized hazard should use the new draft of NFPA 660 as a roadmap to a safer facility. The period for public input on NFPA 660 is open until January 5, 2023. The committee writing the standard intends to have it ready as part of the Fall 2024 cycle, meaning by 2025. So, if you have the time, contribute your expertise to improving that roadmap by reviewing the draft and commenting before the deadline.