Chocolate factory explosion highlights combustion risks

Last week’s deadly explosion at a chocolate factory in Pennsylvania highlighted the flammability of food factories in general and chocolate manufacturing in particular.

A powerful explosion at the 75-year-old RM Palmer Co. (which makes chocolate eggs, rabbits, bars, coins and other sweets) killed seven, took ten to hospital and left the small town of West Reading. Several other buildings were damaged. Sixty miles (96 kilometers) northwest of Philadelphia has long been a factory.

Local, state, and federal investigations are ongoing. Pennsylvania State Police said “everything is on the table” as firefighters try to determine the cause and the cause. Some workers told relatives they smelled natural gas before the explosion. However, gas company UGI said it had not received any reports of gas leaks.

Let’s take a look at the dangers of food manufacturing and what might be behind this deadly explosion.


According to Holly Burgess, technical lead for industrial and chemical safety at the National Fire Protection Association, it’s commonly found in commercial ovens and furnaces, commercial refrigerants that use ammonia, and ingredients like cocoa powder and cornstarch. The combustible dust produced is the main explosion hazard in food factories. is a non-profit organization that creates hundreds of codes and standards.

“Most people don’t understand what their dangers are or what they’re looking at if they’ve never been involved in some kind of food manufacturing,” Burgess said.

Chocolate companies and other food manufacturers should take steps to reduce the risk of fires and explosions from dust. A small particle in the air poses a greater danger than a large particle that quickly falls to the floor.

“It’s a common concern in many food manufacturing facilities that handle combustible particulates,” said Bob Zarosch, former professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and consultant on industrial fire and explosion hazard mitigation and investigations. I’m here.

Food manufacturers are supposed to determine the flammability of dust, perform hazard analysis and then control in accordance with the Fire Service Association’s standards for the prevention of dust explosions in food processing plants.

Common methods of controlling dust include dust collectors and industrial vacuum cleaners.

The Palmer Blast

One possible explanation for the explosion is the explosion of a highly flammable powdered starch that candy companies often use to mold chocolate into shapes such as Easter eggs, according to the manufacturing facility that supplies the chocolate. said Terry Wakefield, a business consultant and food scientist who ran it. to RM Palmer.

A shock wave from the initial explosion may have shook dust that had built up on the ceiling and other surfaces, he said. We evaluated the station’s weather camera.

“A lot of people don’t realize that starch can do things like that.

According to Wakefield, it’s likely that the company used a starch casting method, based on the types of candy Palmer produces.

Officials at the family-owned company did not respond to questions from the Associated Press.

Dust explosions have long been a problem in the manufacturing industry. According to the U.S. Chemical Safety Commission, between 1980 and 2017, nearly 400 combustible dust fires and explosions occurred in multiple industries, including food, chemicals, paper, pharmaceuticals, and metalworking, with 185 People died and over 1,000 were injured.

In 2008, a buildup of sugar powder caught fire and exploded at the Imperial Sugar Factory in Port Wentworth, Georgia, killing 14 people.

workplace safety record

Since 2018, Palmer has had at least two workplace accidents, according to federal records.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which regulates workplace safety, visited Palmer’s West Reading plant in 2018 when an employee lost a fingertip while cleaning a pressurization valve. The company agreed to pay a fine of US$13,000.

In 2019, OSHA investigated an incident at Palmer’s plant in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, in which a conveyor belt turned on while workers were cleaning rollers, according to federal records. The employee’s arm was broken in multiple places. The company settled with OSHA for $26,000.

And in January, records show OSHA fined more than US$12,000 after an inspection at the Wyomissing plant. Details of that case were not available.

Online records said nothing about combustible dust or other explosion hazards at Palmer.


A woman who lived next door to the power plant filed a lawsuit on Tuesday, alleging Palmer failed to maintain equipment and prevent an explosion. Betty Wright was “lifted off her feet and blown out of her room”, with injuries to her neck, back, hips and legs.She also lost her belongings.

A statement from Wright’s attorneys at Morgan & Morgan said the company has assembled “a team of experts to help us understand the causes of this devastating explosion.”

Additional lawsuits are expected.

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