You might not think of sugar, corn, or metal as materials that can cause a catastrophic explosion in a factory, but when they're ground into dust-and suspended in the air-all it takes is a small spark to set off a major disaster. As correspondent Scott Pelley reports, devastating dust explosions at American factories are more common now than ever.
Since 1980, there have been at least 350 such explosions in the U.S., killing 133 people and injuring hundreds more. There are at least 30,000 factories in the nation vulnerable to dust explosions, and yet, some top federal safety officials tell 60 Minutes the government agency whose job it is to protect workers is ignoring a tried-and-true way to prevent those explosions.
On the night of Oct, 29, 2003, the Hayes Lemmerz factory in Huntington, Ind., exploded in a ball of fire. The plant made wheels for cars, and federal investigators said aluminum dust had piled up and detonated.
Thirty-three-year-old Shawn Boone was a mechanic at the plant. His sister, Tammy Miser, got a call with word that her brother was seriously injured. "Shawn and a couple of his co-workers were in the furnace room. And there was an explosion. And then there was a second more intense blast," she remembers.
Asked what happened to him, Tammy tells Pelley, "He laid on the building floor. And the aluminum dust actually continued to burn through his flesh."
Tammy says her brother had third and fourth-degree burns on 92 to 100 percent of his body. She says the doctors said there wasn't any hope. "That his internal organs were burned beyond repair. They wouldn't even bandage him. They said that the only solution we had was to take him off of life support."
Shawn Boone was one of 15 people killed in dust explosions that year. It was a turning point for Carolyn Merritt, who was then the head of the Chemical Safety Board, the federal government's own experts who find the cause of the nation's worst industrial disasters.
Merritt ordered the most comprehensive investigation ever done on dust explosions. Her conclusion: hundreds of industries create huge amounts of lethal dust and aren't even aware of the risk. "If this material were gasoline, there would be no doubt in any owner's or operator's mind what needed to be done," Merritt tells Pelley.
Asked if that would be an emergency, Merritt says, "Absolutely."
"Is dust, functionally, the same thing?" Pelley asks.
"It has the same power if a dust explosion occurs," Merritt explains.
"Can you just explain to me how it is that the dust is explosive, I mean, what's going on here?" Pelley asks,
"Okay, if you take an ear of corn, you're not gonna be able to light it with a match. But if you grind that into a powder, the smaller the particle size, the more explosive it is. Metal dust. People don't think metal can burn. But you turn it into a fine powder, and you have a very explosive and flammable material," she explains.
Even a thin layer of dust, once airborne, can be ignited by the smallest spark-a machine being plugged in or a forklift scraping the ground.
One explosion, also in 2003, at West Pharmaceutical Industries in Kinston, N.C., showed just how insidious the problem can be. Because it was a drug company, the factory floor was immaculate. But plastic dust was hidden above the workers' heads.
"We know that as much as two inches of dust had accumulated in the ceiling, probably about a ton of material. That makes for a powerful explosion," Merritt says.
Hours after the blast employees were still trapped inside; seven died and scores were injured. Merritt's investigation concluded that OSHA-the government agency created to safeguard workplaces-had no effective regulation on its books to deal with explosive dust. And she found that OSHA inspectors routinely overlooked the hazard.
Merritt tells Pelley OSHA had been at that worksite before the explosion and that they didn't find any dust issues.