When it comes to hazardous or dangerous locations it is the oil and gas industry that receives the most attention. The industry is both praised for its potential to encourage economic growth and spurned for the perceived risks associated with the environment and the potential for a serious disaster causing injury or even death. Oil and gas exploration is perhaps the most widely recognized as a hazardous location, but is only one of the many industries touched by safety requirements for machinery used in these locations. Hazardous location requirements cover industries ranging from waste water, food & beverage production, pharmaceutical, paint manufacturers and mining, to name but a few.
It is not without reason that concern over hazardous locations has become a public issue. Recent industrial accidents have had disastrous consequences causing personal injury and serious environmental damage. Furthermore, the proposals for new mining projects, oil and gas exploration and new infrastructure to transport these goods to new markets have caused much debate on both sides of the argument. But the number and prevalence of existing hazardous locations throughout communities is often ignored when bigger, more widely known projects receive most of the attention.
When it comes to hazardous locations, flammable vapour, liquid and dust need to be taken into account. Liquids and vapours, or gases that are flammable may seem intuitive, but the number of everyday items that fall into these categories, and the often overlooked flammable dusts, would make the average person pause. Many people would be surprised at the number of industries that need to take hazardous locations requirements into consideration in their day-to-day operations. Dust, particularly that created when handling metals, food products and pharmaceuticals have not often registered as potentially hazardous locations historically and as such have not always sourced equipment designated for safe use in a potentially flammable atmosphere. A quick internet search turns up a disproportionate amount of devastating industrial accidents related to these dust atmospheres.
In order to mitigate the risks associated with operating in a hazardous location it is important that both the designer of the equipment and those involved in its install, repair and operation have a thorough understanding of the requirements. The very nature of these locations means there are explosive elements in the environment that require specific safety features to help ensure the machinery can safely be used. Certification of products, and even personnel in some cases, is required by law in most jurisdictions. Incorporating safety features into the initial design, ensuring proper testing and certification of products and training of personnel operating the equipment should always be considered best practice and included as an integral part of your overall product development.
Product certification is often viewed as a necessary evil to bring a product to market and not the important safety function that it actually is. When designing equipment for use in hazardous locations, it is imperative to understand the safety standards adopted by each jurisdiction where a product might be used. These requirements must act as the foundation to any design as certification will be necessary and safety requirements can have implications that effect functionality. Demonstration of compliance will require testing and approval by a Certification Body or Notified Body accredited to issue the certificate for the designated target region. For manufacturers and designers, it is critical that you consider the intended use of the product at the initial design phases rather than the weeks before production once the functional design is complete. This includes considerations such as what protection concept will be employed to assure safety of the equipment, what type of hazards the product will be exposed to and the operating environment.
Beyond selecting certified products, purchasers and operators of hazardous location equipment have the additional responsibility of assuring the certification actually meets the requirements of the intended installation location as products are certified for use in very specific locations and conditions. To effectively implement and ensure proper equipment use requires knowledgeable and competent staff. One of the best ways to ensure uniform understanding and compliance is a personnel certification program that is thorough and ongoing.
Some of the most hazardous workplace conditions can be found in the oil and gas industry. Accidents often lead to serious injuries and fatalities particularly when inexperienced workers are not adequately trained in safety or deemed competent to perform the duties of the job.
While there is often significant time and investment in the certification of the products for use in hazardous areas, the knowledge and capability of the individuals tasked with sourcing, installing and maintaining the equipment is often less thorough. Safety provided by certified products can quickly be undermined by improper installation or maintenance by unknowledgeable staff. Larger companies in the oil and gas industry often have comprehensive training programs in place, however this is not always the case. Furthering the challenge are the industries often overlooked as being hazardous, such as food production and grain processors. In some cases with small businesses, the operators are unaware that the location is considered hazardous and are uninformed of the rigorous requirements.
Stakeholders should aim to assure that not only their own, but their suppliers and contractors personnel are capable and competent. The best way to assure competence is participation and certification of staff involved in hazardous areas to a personnel competence scheme such as IECEx Personnel Competence program. Independent third party personnel competence schemes assure a demonstrated knowledge of the required skills and uniformity of all participants. Utilization of a scheme such as IECEx personnel competence assures companies who outsource elements of their business a consistent and measurable method of assuring their subcontractors and providers have a skill set consistent with their own, limiting costly mistakes resulting from the competence of hired staff. This also extends past initial commissioning to life cycle services such as equipment repair, inspection and maintenance.
Equipment Repair and Inspections
Maintaining equipment integrity and ensuring the safety of personnel is the ultimate goal of any inspection, repair and maintenance program. If handled improperly, repairs performed may invalidate a product’s certification or worse negate some or all of the protection measures in place to assure it doesn’t cause a fire or explosion. Equipment that is not maintained also carries similar risk due to various influences such as environmental damage or neglect. Failure to monitor and correct these challenges through regular maintenance can have catastrophic results.
Often these tasks have been handled internally, however, in light of recent incidents in the field; regulations relating to engineering and inspection requirements are becoming increasingly more stringent and the required skills or volumes of these skills simply aren’t available. This leads us back to the importance of personnel certification.
Utilization of a third party expert to accomplish these tasks is also a valid option. Third parties carry unique skills and knowledge that are tested by experience and time. They also typically hold the most up-to-date knowledge and training. Use of a third party for your inspection, repair and maintenance provides workforce flexibility and consistent quality. Some programs, such as the IECEx Service Facility Certification scheme offer a third party validated certificate of conformity that confirms an independent ExCB evaluated the facility and found it to have the appropriate equipment, trained staff and procedures to assure high degrees of confidence in performed repairs and ongoing compliance with its safety certificate.
A sound inspection, repair and maintenance program using the latest knowledge, facilities, tools and resources is mandatory to help ensure safety and reduce the risk of costly accidents. Accidents in industries with hazardous locations are disproportionately higher at smaller operators who lack the safety program or training to assure safe working. Understanding where you may have weakness and using third party resources available to help you identify these challenges or perform the tasks for you where you lack the confidence and skills helps guarantee the safety of all stakeholders.
The very nature of the industries with hazardous locations is dangerous. With the number or people employed in these industries coupled with the inherent risk of the work being performed, which includes the use of large or heavy equipment and machinery, the number of accidents is still few and far between. Advancements in technology, health and safety and awareness over the past 10 to 15 years have created great gains in safe working practices. A continued proactive approach is required to address the gaps to help ensure the safety of personnel and equipment and a thorough policy to educate staff and assure safe practices are always encouraged and followed.
Any steps that can be taken to intervene in a preventable death or injury is a step in the right direction and creating a foundation which incorporates safety in the initial design of equipment, assures properly certified equipment, qualified staff and a comprehensive inspection, repair and maintenance program is fundamental to securing our future and helping to reduce death and injury while enjoying the positive effects of growing industries.