Intrinsic Safety: Essential Protection for High-Risk Sectors

Intrinsic Safety: Essential Protection for High-Risk Sectors

Picture a bustling and hazardous industrial site, with machines and employees working tirelessly to drive productivity. However, amidst the hum of activity lurks an ever-present danger: the risk of fire and explosions. These hazards can turn into devastating consequences in an instant, as evidenced by the sobering statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the US, between 2014 and 2019, 68 oil and gas workers lost their lives to explosions, while fire claimed another 60. These fatalities accounted for a staggering 27% of all deaths in the sector during that period. But there is hope. 

With the ever present risk of explosions in such sectors, it is important to ensure any smart personal protective equipment (PPE) provided is intrinsically safe. Intrinsic safety is not an optional luxury but is, in fact, an essential safeguard for many industrial sectors. This article explores what intrinsic safety means, why it is indispensable, the regulations surrounding it and its application across crucial industries.

What is intrinsic safety?

Smart PPE that is intrinsically safe ensures electrical equipment is safe to use in hazardous environments where explosive atmospheres may exist due to flammable gases or vapours. Fundamentally, this works by limiting the electrical and thermal energy available in the device to levels so low that they cannot ignite an explosive atmosphere, regardless of the operating conditions. 

Let’s examine how intrinsically safe technology operates and its practical applications in high-risk industries.


The core principles of intrinsic safety

Energy limitation: Technology that is intrinsically safe ensures electrical circuits and components are designed to operate with minimal energy levels. To achieve this, barriers and isolators are used to restrict the flow of electrical currents and reduce voltage to safe levels.

Temperature control: This ensures that the surface temperature of the device, or any parts, does not exceed the ignition temperature of the surrounding gases or dust. This is crucial in preventing heat-induced ignition.

Preventing electrical sparks: By controlling the energy of the circuit and materials, an intrinsically safe solution minimises the risk that an electrical spark can occur. Even during a short circuit or a component failure, the energy remains too low to create a spark with sufficient heat to ignite an explosive atmosphere.

Once there is a clear understanding of the principles that deem technology to be intrinsically safe, the next step is to explore how these principles are put into practice across hazardous environments.

How intrinsic safety solutions are designed

Intrinsically safe solutions are vital to ensuring operational safety in environments where the risk of explosion is constantly present. Implementing this is a multifaceted process that encompasses design, certification, system integration and regular maintenance. 

Design and certification: Equipment intended for use in hazardous environments must be designed from the ground up with intrinsic safety at the forefront. This involves selecting appropriate materials, designing circuits for low-energy use and incorporating safety barriers. Such equipment must undergo rigorous design evaluation, testing and certification by recognised standards, such as the ATEX Directive in the European Union, to ensure it meets the strict criteria for intrinsic safety certifications.

System integration: Intrinsic safety doesn’t stop at individual devices. The entire system, including wiring, connectors and power sources, must be evaluated and configured to adhere to the intrinsic safety principles. This holistic approach ensures that not only are devices themselves safe but their interaction with the environment and other systems also complies with safety standards.

Regular inspection and maintenance: To ensure intrinsic safety requirements are met consistently, equipment and systems require regular inspection and maintenance. This practice helps to identify any potential issues that could compromise safety, such as wear and tear or environmental impacts, ensuring that the equipment continues to operate within safe parameters.

Intrinsic safety is a proactive approach to ensuring the safety and well-being of workers in high-risk situations across sectors such as petrochemicals, utilities, and oil and gas. This is a reminder that keeping employees safe from fire and explosion hazards isn’t just morally right: it’s a legal requirement. 

What are the regulations for intrinsic safety?

The world of intrinsic safety regulations is vast, spanning numerous standards and directives. Understanding the nuances of intrinsic safety regulations is essential for industries operating within hazardous environments. These standards are not arbitrary; they are carefully crafted to mitigate risks in environments with significantly high potential for disaster.

Here’s a closer look at the regulatory frameworks and their application:

ATEX in Europe: The ATEX Directive encompasses two key EU directives (2014/34/EU and 1999/92/EC) that dictate the safety requirements for equipment and work environments in explosive atmospheres. For instance, a chemical manufacturing plant in Germany must ensure that all its electrical equipment, from sensors to actuators, complies with ATEX standards to prevent ignition risks.

UKEX in the UK: Post Brexit, the UKEX Scheme replaces ATEX in the UK Market. The official title of the regulations is The Equipment and Protective Systems Intended for Use in Potentially Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2016. This mirrors the ATEX Directive outlining the essential health and safety requirements for equipment used in explosive atmospheres within the UK. Similar to ATEX, UKEX compliance is crucial for sectors such as oil and gas, chemical processing and mining to ensure safe operation and prevent catastrophic incidents.

National Electrical Code (NEC) in the US: NEC Article 500 through 506 provides classification and installation standards for electrical equipment in hazardous (classified) locations. A refinery in Texas, for example, follows these codes to determine the types of electrical installations permissible in different classified zones to prevent fires and explosions.

IECEx Worldwide: The International Electrotechnical Commission’s IECEx provides an international system for certification relating to equipment for use in explosive atmospheres. This helps facilitate international trade in safer equipment and services and ensures mutual understanding and confidence between global trading partners.

What sectors require intrinsic safety?

Intrinsic safety is particularly vital in sectors such as petrochemicals, utilities, and oil and gas. The risk of explosive atmospheres turns intrinsic safety principles and regulations into lifelines for operations and personnel.

Petrochemicals

In the petrochemical sector, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other flammable substances make intrinsic safety measures non-negotiable. Without intrinsic safety measures, a simple operational task like starting a pump could trigger an explosion. Implementing intrinsically safe sensors and control systems compliant with ATEX or NEC can prevent such hazardous occurrences by ensuring that no electrical equipment within these areas has enough energy to cause ignition.

For instance, in a processing plant, sensors monitoring the flow and pressure within pipes containing flammable chemicals are designed to be intrinsically safe. These sensors operate effectively within hazardous zones without posing an ignition risk, ensuring continuous and safe monitoring.

Another example is a routine inspection within a refinery, where workers are tasked with checking the integrity of pipelines carrying benzene, a highly flammable liquid. Equipped with intrinsically safe inspection tools, the team can safely conduct their work in close proximity to these volatile substances. 

Utilities

Utilities face unique challenges, particularly in gas distribution networks and wastewater treatment facilities, where the risk of methane or hydrogen sulphide build-up exists. An example of intrinsic safety in practice is the use of intrinsically safe gas detectors by maintenance teams. 

These detectors, designed to comply with strict safety standards, allow workers to safely monitor gas levels in confined spaces, preventing potential explosions that could devastate communities and the utility infrastructure.

Another example is a utility worker performing routine maintenance on electrical components in a sewer system, a place notoriously known for its potential accumulation of explosive gases. Utilising intrinsically safe flashlights and communication devices, the worker can see and communicate effectively without the fear of sparking explosive gases. 

Oil and Gas

The oil and gas industry’s exploration and extraction activities are fraught with hazards, notably from the high-pressure systems and the presence of hydrocarbons. A prominent application of intrinsic safety here is in the drilling operations, where intrinsically safe pressure transducers monitor well pressures. 

This monitoring is critical, especially when considering the Deepwater Horizon disaster, where a failure to interpret pressure data properly contributed to one of the worst environmental disasters in US history. Intrinsically safe equipment ensures that the risks of ignition from electrical sources are minimised, even in the event of a catastrophic well failure.

Another example on offshore oil and gas rigs is where communication devices such as radios and mobile phones used by the crew are equipped with intrinsic safety technology. This allows for safe communication even in the presence of potentially explosive gases, ensuring that operations can proceed safely and efficiently.

In these high-stakes environments, where the margin for error is slim, and the consequences of oversight immense, intrinsic safety measures are a critical shield against the unpredictable. Such a backdrop sets the stage for innovative safety technologies that meet these rigorous standards and push the boundaries of what’s possible in operational safety.


An intrinsically safe smart safety solution

Bodytrak® is transforming workplace safety. Moving beyond conventional safety equipment, Bodytrak 1 IS is a wearable, in-ear device that blends effortlessly into daily routines. In hazardous sectors where workers are naturally wearing more PPE, it combines comfort with sophisticated, intrinsically safe physiological monitoring, setting a new standard in occupational health and safety.

How Bodytrak 1 IS enhances safety and productivity

Real-time data monitoring: The device meticulously captures physiological responses to environmental factors and workplace stressors, giving employers the tools to pre-emptively address potential risks. For example, NIOSH’s Fatalities in Oil and Gas Extraction (FOG) Database reported nine heat-related fatalities in the sector. Monitoring can prevent heat-related incidents, especially during the summer months, safeguarding workers and sustaining project timelines. 

AI-driven analytics: Through advanced algorithms, Bodytrak translates complex core body temperature, heart rate, fatigue and noise exposure data into straightforward, actionable insights. This capability is particularly beneficial in high-risk industries, where predictive analytics can forecast dangerous conditions before they escalate.

Personalised approach to safety: Whether it’s navigating the confined spaces of underground utilities or responding to the dynamic challenges of emergency services, Bodytrak’s approach is profoundly personalised. By monitoring individual workers, which accounts for variations in experience, body type and other personal factors, Bodytrak ensures that each scenario is met with a safety strategy tailored not just to the job but to the person doing it. This level of detail provides more accurate and effective safety measures, highlighting the importance of personalisation in occupational safety.

Productivity enhancement: By significantly reducing the risk of incidents, Bodytrak protects employees and minimises operational disruptions. In sectors like oil and gas, where a 1% unplanned downtime can cost organisations over $5 million in maintenance costs and lost production each year, this advantage cannot be overstated.

Powerful and precise insights: The ability to monitor the wellbeing and safety of employees through physiological responses and ML-driven analytics empowers users and organisations. Alongside the real-time alerts on the Dashboard, the essential reporting on the Bodytrak Platform translates into automated and actionable insights for preventative measures, reducing the risk of injuries and associated costs. Overall this enhances operational efficiency and improves Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) metrics by promoting a safer and healthier workforce within the organisation.

The forward-thinking solutions from Bodytrak, epitomised by the Bodytrak 1 IS, highlight the company’s dedication to pushing the boundaries of what is possible in workplace safety. This commitment not only helps protect workers but also promotes a culture of safety across industries.

Adopting Bodytrak 1 IS is more than an upgrade for those in safety-critical roles – it’s a shift towards comprehensive, real-time safety management. By engaging with Bodytrak, organisations can step into the future of workplace safety, where technology and well-being go hand in hand. Don’t let your organisation fall behind; explore how Bodytrak 1 IS can improve your safety standards today.

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