Safety Board Releases Report Into Fatal Didion Milling Plant Explosion

US Chemical Safety Board Renews Call For Combustible Dust Standards

Didion Milling Plant damage
Photo courtesy of CBS 58

The fatal explosion of a corn milling plant in the Village of Cambria last year that killed five workers was caused by dust catching fire, according to a preliminary report by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board issued Monday.

The Chemical Safety Board doesn’t know exactly what sparked and set off one or more explosions at the Didion Milling Plant at 11 p.m. May 31 when 19 people were working. Workers smelled smoke, then saw an air filter on a gap mill blow off, shooting corn dust and flames 4 feet high.

In releasing its report, the Chemical Safety Board renewed is call for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to set an industry standard for combustible dust to prevent future tragedies.

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A previous CSB study identified 281 combustible dust incidents between 1980 and 2005 that killed 119 workers, injured 718, and extensively damaged industrial facilities. The board calls it a critical issue in industrial safety.

The CSB recommended the standard be based on existing National Fire Protection Association dust explosion standards. But CSB chair Vanessa Allen Sutherland says a lack of resources prevented OSHA from acting on the proposal.

Didion is cooperating with the probe, according to investigators.

“Within days we actually had investigators and our structural engineers inside the buildings we deemed safe for entry,” said CSB investigator Mary Beth Mulcahy. “We gathered various damage indicators so we were able to look at, you know, instances like a bent door which helps us determine what direction the explosion came from and how strong it was.”

Mulcachy said workers had different perceptions about the level of dangerous dust.

“From people telling us, ‘This place was spick and span,’ all the way through, ‘This place was covered in dust everyday.’”

Mulcahy also said Monday that workers told them Sunday night that the company had instructed them not to talk to investigators who use interviews and on-scene data to come up with findings.

“There is information that we have that will already allow us to start to look into this issue. The evidence is there and we’ve already had a lot of very candid interviews and it’s going to allow us, I think, to discuss (what occurred and why),” Mulcahy said.

“Didion has at all times cooperated with the CSB’s investigation, including organizing multiple interviews with Didion employees, giving the CSB regular access to our site and providing thousands of documents to aid in the agency’s investigation,” Didion spokeswoman Aisha Bachlani said in a statement. “Didion has encouraged all employees to cooperate with the CSB and all other regulatory agencies in their investigations.”

The CSB has talked to 10 of the 14 survivors, all of which were injured, including an employee who had both legs amputated after being crushed by equipment.

OSHA has fined Didion $1.8 million for what officials say was a preventable explosion.

Didion issued a statement saying its committed to the safety of its employees and “is working with industry experts on construction of a new state-of-the-art corn mill, which will feature the latest technology and most effective and safe operational systems available today.”