Dusty workplaces could prove more hazardous to employees than many Jackson County companies imagined.

Dusty workplaces could prove more hazardous to employees than many Jackson County companies imagined.

A letter to 2,500 companies statewide from the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration will alert businesses later this month to the potential problem of dust igniting under the right circumstances. The letter cites an explosion at a Georgia sugar mill that killed 13 on Feb. 7.

In Jackson County, OSHA listed at least 78 companies that will receive the letters explaining the dangers of combustible dust, which can be produced by everything from flour to wood.

"There may be companies that don't realize they have these hazards," said OSHA spokeswoman Melanie Mesaros.

Explosions can occur if there are sufficient quantities of oxygen, a fuel source such as dust particles and something to ignite it.

"These three things in the right combination could result in a fire," said Mesaros.

An initial dust explosion can sometimes stir up enough dust to trigger a secondary explosion of even greater magnitude, she said.

During inspections, OSHA representatives will pay more attention to the potential problem of combustible dust and will alert business owners to the dangers.

Grain elevators are the best-known example of combustible dust fires, but ingredients used for baking, rubber, metal and many other natural and synthetic materials also are potentially hazardous.

In 2006, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board found 281 combustible dust incidents in the U.S. between 1980 and 2005 that killed 119 workers and injured more than 700, according to OSHA.

Since 2000, four combustible dust explosions have occurred in Oregon, killing three and injuring several others. Three of the explosions occurred in Albany businesses, one in Roseburg.

Some companies in Jackson County already have installed sophisticated methods of controlling dust.

Timber Products in White City has a voluntary program with OSHA that attempts to address any safety issues and resolve them.

"We do spend quite a bit of money on dust collection," said Kirk Jacobson, human resources manager for the Southern Oregon region of Timber Products Companies. "The dust is a big issue you try to control. You don't want any explosions."

Jacobson said his plant tries to exceed OSHA standards and does as much as it can to protect employees.

Boise Cascade also works with OSHA to identify problems early and has installed equipment and developed strategies to control dust.

Bob Smith, human resources manager at Boise Cascade, said dust control is a priority for his company, which has plants in both Medford and White City.

He said two workers are dedicated to removing dust from hard-to-reach areas such as rafters. Suction devices and vacuum systems pull the dust away from work areas so it doesn't become airborne.

"Over the years, we are noted for having very aggressive housekeeping activities in our mills," he said.

It used to be a different story in the timber industry, he said.

Some of the first air pollution control devices were large bag houses that trapped particulates but were also a hazard. "There were quite a few fire calls at the mills," he said.

Some companies in Jackson County didn't realize they would be getting a letter from OSHA.

Dan Dressler, sales manager at Tucker Sno-Cat in Medford, said he wasn't aware that his company was on the OSHA list.

"Luckily we don't do anything that causes that kind of problem," he said.

He said there is some cutting and grinding while working with metals. A paint booth has all the certifications and venting to keep it safe, he said.

Mesaros said, "Companies may not think they have these potential hazards, but they may exist."

She said OSHA compiled its list from workers' compensation data that shows production facilities with a high risk of dust generation.

She did say that companies on the list don't necessarily have a problem with combustible dust.

OSHA offers a free and confidential consulation to companies. She said that the results of the consulation won't lead to any kind of enforcement action.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.