Bulk material processing is an essential part of many different industries, from chemical manufacturing to farming to food to pharmaceuticals and many more. However, bulk material processing also presents many unique hazards that claim thousands of lives each year. Improving safety in bulk material processing not only means saving lives, but also making processes more efficient.
5 Ways to Use Automation to Improve Safety in Bulk Material Processing
1. Improved Storage Design
It’s easy to assume that storage containers are all alike. A storage container merely needs to hold material and discharge it properly, which generally isn’t considered a complicated process. However, when working with thousands of pounds of any material, complex problems can arise. The design of the storage container can significantly affect safety in bulk material processing.
There are a number of issues to consider when it comes to storage design in bulk material processing, including:
- Storage container collapse, such as silo collapse due to uneven filling
- Spoilage and contamination due to uneven filling, discharge or faulty construction
- Weak points in inlet or discharge valves or gates, resulting in material flooding
- Improperly designed outlets changing flow patterns in unexpected ways
Understanding the material’s characteristics—including how susceptible it is to certain flow problems, such as bridging, ratholing, and separation—can help to optimize storage design and eliminate some hazards. With an understanding of how the material flows and the conditions which make it likely to stick, aerate, clog, flush, freeze, congeal etc., equipment designers and operators can also identify dangerous conditions before they become hazards.
2. Preventing Grain Entrapment and Engulfment
Entrapment and engulfment, usually involving grain silos or bins, is one of the most dangerous incidents in bulk material processing. This occurs when workers walk across the top of stored material within a container, and a void or weak point in the stored material collapses, creating a type of sinkhole that either traps or completely swallows the worker.
The seemingly harmless grain creates numerous complex problems for freeing a trapped or engulfed worker. Studies indicate that a person cannot escape the sinkhole by themselves if they are entrapped above the knee; at waist-high levels, formal rescue attempts are required, and full engulfment usually results in suffocation in minutes. Due to the friction created by grains, simple pulling force usually cannot extract someone from the sinkhole; the force required to pull someone free when trapped at waist-high level can also fracture their spine. Gasses produced by spoiling grain, heat extremes in the bin or silo, and further danger of entrapment also complicates rescue efforts, and has killed first responders.
Despite the improvements in many areas of bulk material handling and processing, the incidence of entrapment and engulfment in grain silos and similar situations has not improved in recent years. A record-setting 51 entrapments occurred in the U.S. in 2010, with a disproportionate number killing or injuring children under the age of 18. Hundreds more are affected around the world.
This phenomena again involves storage containers and the unexpected problems that can result from bulk material storage and flow. The best form of prevention is zero entry into the storage container. When grain is stored at the appropriate moisture level in a properly-designed container, it will flow freely, eliminating the need for entry. Education on this problem can also show workers that, though the grain appears solid enough to walk on, invisible sinkholes can exist anywhere.
3. Mitigating Dust
Bulk material processing often means handling powders and materials with small particles, which can result in dust and powder around the facility. Once again, this is a seemingly harmless substance which can actually be very harmful. Dust and powders present health risks through inhalation, and risks of fires and explosions.
Powder or dust fires and explosions continue to cause hundreds of deaths and injuries in America, and thousands more worldwide, every year. When the right concentration of dust and oxygen occurs in a closed space and something ignites—a spark from a machine, a cigarette, even a static spark—a dust fire or explosion can occur.
Mitigating dust is the best way to prevent dust ignition and combustion. Since dust can occur at many different points in the bulk material handling process, it takes ongoing diligence to reduce dust and improve safety in bulk material processing.
Dust mitigation includes a range of devices, including:
- Fugitive dust removal systems around bulk bag unloaders and hoppers
- Skirting around conveyor transfer points
- Washdown systems for cleaning equipment
- Using respirators to avoid inhalation
4. Using a Job Hazard Analysis
Different bulk material processing and handling facilities present different hazards. The best way to improve safety at your bulk material processing facility is to assess risk beforehand and create a culture of safety.
A Job Hazard Analysis can help to reveal unique dangers at a facility, draw attention to these risks, and identify ways to reduce these risks. Job Hazard Analysis is similar to, but much shorter than, a hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) assessment for food safety.
- Breaking the job into steps
- Identify the hazards of each step
- Identify ways to reduce or eliminate these hazards
5. Create a Culture of Safety
Safety on the job site often begins in a reactive way, where incidents on the job are assumed to be simple accidents or the result of a lack of attention from a single person. This is not an effective way to address safety concerns, which often stem from systemic problems, not individual accidents.
Transitioning to a climate of safety responsibility, first individually and then as a group, is the best way to improve safety in bulk material processing, or any facility. When the team takes ownership and feels responsibility for the safety of everyone and believes that zero injuries is possible, all team members have the best chance of maintaining safety.