by Lara Copeland, contributing editor
A typical Midwestern town, Columbus, Indiana, is known not only for its unique architecture throughout the downtown area, but also as the location of Toyota Material Handling USA, Inc., a forklift manufacturing company employing 1,500 associates.
In Columbus, when the temperatures outside begin to increase, the 1.3 million-square-foot Toyota plant starts to get warmer as well. To combat the heat, the facility has 36-inch fans in place to help move and cool the air. However, during the colder months when the fans are not used, dust and dirt accumulate on them, causing complications when they are turned on in the spring. National Training and Customer Center Manager Tom Lego explained, “We have 500 fans and when they are turned on, some dirt could become dislodged or other dust and dirt could blow into our associates’ faces, causing foreign bodies to get into their eyes.” Additionally, blowing dust can start a chain of events that could lead to an industrial fire.
Though combustible dust is a major cause of fire affecting nearly every industry – whether plastics or metal fabrication, food processing or grain handling, forest products or a number of other industries – it is often overlooked. Almost everything, even materials that are not typically fire risks in larger pieces, can become combustible once reduced to dust form. Fine particles, fibers, chips, chunks or flakes are all forms of combustible dust that have the potential to cause a fire or explosion.
In many cases, a small fire will start after combustible material makes contact with an ignition source. The dust in the area will become airborne after the primary explosion, and then the dust cloud itself can ignite, resulting in a secondary explosion. Since dust is the key ingredient in combustible dust fires and explosions, preventing it from accumulating to a dangerous level can be life-saving.
According to the most recent fire statistics from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an average of 37,000 fires occur at industrial and manufacturing properties every year. In addition to loss of life and injuries, fires cost more than $1 billion in direct property damage. Of the five most common causes of industrial fires and explosions, combustible dust is ranked number one.
In every Toyota production facility, employees are encouraged to suggest ideas in an effort to improve safety and quality. These ideas are referred to as “kaizen,” a Japanese word that means constant improvement. Lego explained, “Simple ideas have some very positive impacts, and we are always looking for small daily improvements.” When Toyota associates searched for an idea to reduce particles in the air when fans are blowing, someone suggested putting a filter on each fan.
“We tested the fan filter idea a few years ago, and they have been a success ever since,” Lego stated. The company made 3-inch-thick filters in-house out of filter media it had on hand for another project. Once this concept was proved, Toyota worked with a company to custom manufacture replacement filters. “They are round with a slit, so they just slide over the back of the fans,” he said. Each filter only takes a matter of seconds to slip on, and, depending upon the area of the facility the fan is in, these filters are changed out every few months. Lego reported that the associates have been pleased with the reduction of foreign bodies in their eyes, as well as the decrease in time they spend cleaning the fans.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Chemical Safety Board (CSB) statistics show that combustible dust events have killed many employees and injured others in recent years. According to OSHA, since 1980 nearly 150 workers have been killed, while more than 850 have been injured in combustible dust explosions. Not only are the fan filters at Toyota Material Handling USA helping employees to breathe easier and see more clearly, they also are helping to ensure fire safety.