Fire and explosion prevention measures
Good housekeeping and maintenance go a long way

By Kyle Kuphal

Earlier this year, there was an explosion at the CHS elevator in Jasper that blew the top off one of the legs and shook a nearby building. Fortunately, no one was injured. Jasper Fire Chief Jeff Leslie said at the time that a hot bearing on one of the legs caused the explosion. He said the fire from the explosion blew itself out and firefighters brought water up to help cool the bearing and prevent another fire.

According to an annual report from Purdue University that records nationwide grain dust explosions, seven incidents were reported in 2021, down from eight in 2020. The 10-year average for explosions was eight.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), grain dust explosions are often severe, involving loss of life and substantial property damage.

“Grain dust is highly combustible and can burn or explode if enough becomes airborne or accumulates on a surface and finds an ignition source (such as a hot bearing, overheated motor, misaligned conveyor belt, welding, cutting, and brazing),” according to OSHA. “OSHA standards require that both grain dust and ignition sources must be controlled in grain elevators to prevent these often deadly explosions.”

Glen Francis, owner of Ag Builders in Windom, which installs and services grain handling and storage equipment for farmers and elevators, said bearings are the most common heat source that triggers explosions. He said bearings sometimes get over greased or under greased and that over greasing them is more common. When that happens, the seal blows and the grease liquefies and drains out, causing metal against metal friction, which makes the bearings hot and possibly spark, potentially igniting the grain dust.

Technology that can help prevent fires and explosions in grain handling operations includes bearing monitors. Jason Blankenheim, location manager at the CHS elevator in Jasper, said the elevator is installing bearing monitors that will alert staff if a bearing is getting too hot and even shut down the system if necessary.

There are also belt alignment systems that can be put on an elevator to prevent friction between the belt and the inner sides of the elevator’s leg and grain bin temperature sensors that can help prevent fires. Francis said such equipment has been around a long time, but some people still don’t use it because they don’t want to spend the money.

Blankenheim said the most important thing that can be done to prevent explosions or fires in grain handling facilities is to practice “good housekeeping.” That means sweeping and dusting of shelves, panels and anything else that can collect dust on a regular basis to keep dust levels low.

It also means having regular maintenance done on equipment. Francis said the frequency that maintenance should be done depends on how many bushels are being handled. For a smaller operation, once a year maintenance might be enough. For larger operations, more frequent maintenance is required.

“If equipment is not maintained properly and bins are not cleaned out regularly between seasons, dust can build up and when heated, can ignite,” said Emily Krekelberg, University of Minnesota Extension educator of farm safety and health. “The best way to combat fire risk is by performing regular maintenance and cleaning equipment.”

Blankenheim said he and his staff try to take a look at every piece of equipment every three or four months and in hopes of catching  any issues before they become a hazard.

OSHA’s list of steps to prevent dust explosions and fires includes developing and implementing a written housekeeping program to reduce dust accumulations on ledges, floors, equipment and other exposed surfaces; identifying priority housekeeping areas in grain elevators; implementing a preventative maintenance program with regularly scheduled inspections for mechanical and safety control equipment; minimizing ignition sources by controlling hot work; installing wiring and electrical equipment suitable for hazardous locations; designing and properly locating dust collection systems to minimize explosion hazards; and installing an effective means of removing ferrous material from grain streams so that such material does not enter equipment.

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