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The Hazards of Biofuels

Tuesday, October 8, 2013
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As a fast-growing part of the energy sector, the biofuel industry has become an attractive place to work and invest. To protect your company in the biofuel industry, it is essential to recognize potential workplace hazards of biofuels and their production processes and take steps to protect workers from harm. In additional to common workplace hazards such as walking/working surface hazards and electrical hazards, biofuels present three major types of hazards:

  • Fire and explosion hazards
  • Chemical reactivity hazards
  • Toxicity hazards

Rail, truck and barge are the main methods of the distribution of biofuels.

Types of Biofuels There are two major types of biofuels:

  • Ethanol is a flammable liquid that is readily ignited at ordinary temperatures. Renewable ethanol is produced through the fermentation of grains or from materials such as waste paper, wood chips and agricultural wastes.
  • Biodiesel is a combustible liquid that burns readily when heated. When it is blended with petroleum-based diesel fuel or contaminated by materials in manufacturing, it can become more flammable.

Fire and Explosion HazardsTo protect workers, it is essential to prevent releases, avoid ignition of spills and equip your facility with appropriate fire protection systems and emergency response procedures. Necessary engineering controls include:

  • Good facility layout
  • Proper design of vessels and piping systems
  • Proper selection of electrical equipment for use in hazardous areas
  • Adequate instrumentation with alarms, interlocks and shutdowns.

Creating and maintaining proper administrative controls is likewise important. These might include:

  • Operating procedures
  • Good maintenance practices
  • Safe work procedures

Chemical Reactivity HazardsSome processes for making ethanol from materials such as wastepaper and wood chips use concentrated acids and bases, which can react vigorously with many materials. Failure to control potentially dangerous chemical reactions could result in rupture of equipment and piping, explosions, fires and exposures to hazardous chemicals. Preventive measures include:

  • Control the rate and order of chemical addition
  • Provide robust cooling
  • Segregate incompatible materials to prevent inadvertent mixing
  • Create detailed operating procedures

Toxicity HazardsBiofuels and their components present toxic exposure hazards that you need to carefully control to protect workers. Consult each chemical component’s safety data sheet (SDS) to determine the potential for toxic exposures to feedstocks, products and other chemicals used in biofuel processes, including caustic, sulfuric acid, ethanol and biodiesel, as well as hydrocarbons used for blending and alcohol denaturing. Take the following measures to reduce risk:

  • Take release prevention, ventilation and drainage into consideration during design, fabrication and the creation of maintenance practices.
  • Require the use of appropriate personal protective equipment when needed.

OSHA StandardsThere are a variety of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards that apply to manufacturers of biofuels, including:

  • Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals
  • Flammable and Combustible Liquids
  • Hazard Communication
  • Personal Protective Equipment
  • Respiratory Protection
  • Permit-Required Confined Spaces
  • Lockout/Tagout

If there are hazards in your workplace that are not covered by an OSHA regulation, it is still essential that you take steps to control it. OSHA can fine for violation of the General Duty clause, which states that employers must provide workers a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.

Ensuring Safety Your workers’ safety must be your first priority. It is not only right – it makes economic sense. Reducing claims will also reduce your workers’ compensation insurance premiums. For more resources on loss control programs, contact the insurance professionals at The Horton Group.

Material posted on this website is for informational purposes only and does not constitute a legal opinion or medical advice. Contact your legal representative or medical professional for information specific to your legal or medical needs.

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