EAST PROVIDENCE – The injured worker hospitalized after an explosion and fire at a wood pellet factory on Ferris Avenue Tuesday was one of a dozen employees working at the plant when the fire, now believed to have been sparked by an explosion triggered by combustible dust, broke out.
The unidentified Inferno Wood Pellets Co. worker was reportedly thrown 20 feet by the blast and received first- and second-degree burns. He was treated and released from Rhode Island Hospital that night and was reportedly back at his job Wednesday morning helping other plant workers with cleanup efforts, a company official said.
Meanwhile, fire officials were on the scene throughout the day Wednesday wetting down smoldering sawdust on the floors, while plant workers helped empty out the building.
“We had a fire crew there all day Wednesday and I expect to have a crew there tonight,” Battalion Chief George F. Wyrostek said yesterday.
A portion of the roof collapsed during the fire, but a majority of the massive building at 275 Ferris Ave. is intact and could reopen for business in a matter of days. The plant is located in an industrial complex in the city’s Rumford section.
Fire officials confirmed Wednesday that combustible dust caused the explosion and fire at the plant, which was filled with wood chips, ground wood and chemicals to make the pellets.
Inspectors with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives were called in by the state fire marshal to investigate. The ATF is the federal agency with jurisdiction for investigating major fires and crimes of arson.
“I can confirm that the ATF is on scene,” said ATF Boston Field Division Pubic Information Officer Debora Seifert, adding it is common for ATF inspectors to help local agencies and fire investigators probe the cause of large-scale commercial fires.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also investigating, according to Patrick J. Griffin, OSHA's area director.
“We had a compliance officer out there around 4:30 on Tuesday,” said Griffin, adding the OSHA’s investigation is still ongoing because the compliance officer has not been able to fully access the building.
Inferno Wood Pellet Co. is owned by Kraft Group.
“At first pass, it looks like it’s not as bad as we originally thought and we’re hoping to get our guys back to work today to help clean up,” said Steve Maneri, director of sales for Foxboro-based International Forest Products, LLC, a member of the Kraft Group, and the exclusive sales agent of the Inferno Wood Pellet Co.
When asked when the building will reopen for business, Maneri said that will depend on the results of the fire department’s inspection, which was supposed to wrap up by 11 a.m.
“We’ve got plenty of product to ship, if they let us,” Maneri said from his New York office Wednesday.
Maneri had no idea how the fire started, saying the company has many safeguards in place to prevent fires.
The four-alarm fire was reported at about 2:35 p.m. and created huge clouds of black smoke. Local firefighters were assisted at the scene by firefighters from Pawtucket, Seekonk, Providence and Barrington.
A portion of the roof collapsed during the firefighting effort, forcing the evacuation of all firefighters inside. Fire crews had the fire contained by 5 p.m.
Fire Chief Oscar Elmasian told reporters Wednesday that dust was the cause of the explosion and fire.
According to OSHA, any combustible material can burn rapidly when in a finely divided form. If such a dust is suspended in air in the right concentration, under certain conditions, it can become explosible. Even materials that do not burn in larger pieces, such as aluminum or iron, can be explosible in dust form given the proper conditions.
The force from such an explosion can cause employee deaths, injuries, and destruction of entire buildings. For example, three workers were killed in a 2010 titanium dust explosion in West Virginia, and 14 workers were killed in a 2008 sugar dust explosion in Georgia.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board identified 281 combustible dust incidents between 1980 and 2005 that led to the deaths of 119 workers, injured 718, and extensively damaged numerous industrial facilities.
A wide variety of materials that can be explosible in dust form exist in many industries. Some industry examples include food, grain, tobacco, plastics, wood, paper, pulp, rubber, furniture, textiles, pesticides, pharmaceutical, dyes, coal, metals and fossil fuel power generation.