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Why intrinsically safe devices hold the key to true digital transformation

06 August 2020

In this article, Sophie Maxwell, Business Development Manager at Getac UK Ltd, explains how intrinsically safe ATEX certified devices can help businesses achieve digital transformation in facilities where the presence of hazardous explosive atmospheres has previously prevented it.

Sophie Maxwell, Getac
Sophie Maxwell, Getac

(Click here to view article in digital edition)

In recent years, the push for digital transformation in the industrial sector has seen more and more mobile devices being deployed into plants and facilities around the world. For many, the benefits of going digital are now simply too big to ignore, ranging from improved workflows and asset management to faster, more accurate reporting. But perhaps most importantly, it helps pave the way for greater uptake of IoT technology, allowing organisations to capitalise on big data analytics and boost operational efficiency across the board.

However, the path to digital transformation isn’t always straightforward. Not least because a significant number of industrial plants and facilities simply weren’t built with digitisation in mind. Many contain restricted zones with dangerous explosive atmospheres, where a single stray spark from an electrical device has the potential to cause a catastrophic accident. Until recently, these were firmly designated as ‘pen and paper’ areas, but as more organisations look to achieve true digital transformation, they must find a way to accommodate devices in such locations without jeopardising worker safety in any way. The question is, how?

No two explosive atmospheres are the same

According to the UK’s Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR), an explosive atmosphere is defined as:

A mixture of dangerous substances with air, under atmospheric conditions, in the form of gases, vapours, mist or dust in which, after ignition has occurred, combustion spreads to the entire unburned mixture.

In reality, no two explosive atmospheres are the same, meaning the level of device safety measures required will also differ from case to case. For instance, the above definition could be applied to a petrol station forecourt just as much as an industrial refining facility, gas wellhead or spray-painting workshop, despite clear differences in the level of danger posed.

For this reason, organisations are required to closely assess all aspects of their facilities and classify each area based on the true level of risk present. Within the EU, the ATEX classification system is used which combines two European Directives for controlling explosive atmospheres:

1) Directive 99/92/EC (also known as 'ATEX 137' or the 'ATEX Workplace Directive') on minimum requirements for improving the health and safety protection of workers potentially at risk from explosive atmospheres

2) Directive 94/9/EC (also known as 'ATEX 95' or 'the ATEX Equipment Directive') on the approximation of the laws of Members States concerning equipment and protective systems intended for use in potentially explosive atmospheres

Under the ATEX system, zones containing gases/vapours are assigned a rating between 0 (in which an explosive mixture is continuously present or present for long periods) and 2 (in which an explosive mixture is not likely to occur in normal operation and if it occurs, will exist only for a short time). Similarly, zones containing combustible dust or fibres are rated between 20 and 22, based on the same criteria.

Each ATEX level contains corresponding guidelines on the safety measures that electronic equipment must incorporate in order to achieve certification for use in that zone. As expected, a device that’s certified for zone 0 requires much more stringent safety features than those required for use in zone 2.

Once assessment has been completed, organisations must ensure that only devices with the corresponding ATEX certification enter that zone, in order to ensure worker safety and achieve/maintain regulatory compliance.

Mobile device technology is rapidly evolving

Fortunately, mobile device technology as a whole has evolved significantly in terms of design, manufacturing and testing. As a result, industrial customers can now choose from a wide range of ATEX certified commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions, which are both versatile and cost efficient, as well as certified safe for ATEX zones 0/20, 1/21 and 2/22, depending on the chosen device.

Central to this is the advancement of intrinsically safe design and manufacturing processes. Features required for ATEX zone 2/22 certification, such as port protection, temperature control and double fault circuitry are now much more widely available on devices from rugged manufacturers, either as standard or as optional extras. This makes it much easier for organisations to meet the standards required.

Of course, devices designed with safety first and foremost will always have to make trade-offs against pure consumer-orientated laptops and tablets, but these have diminished greatly in recent years. In the past, many ATEX certified devices were cumbersome and outdated right out of the box. Now, the biggest trade-offs tend to be a small weight penalty, slightly dimmer screen (due to lower energy output), and lack of interchangeable battery (due to the device being completely sealed). All of these are small prices to pay for significantly improved worker safety.

Even devices specifically designed for more stringent ATEX zones 0/1 are now incredibly capable, offering a wealth of productivity features alongside the strict safety requirements.

Key purchasing considerations

For any organisation looking to achieve true digital transformation through the deployment of ATEX certified devices, there are a number of key purchasing considerations to bear in mind before making a final decision:

1) Do the device certifications meet the required ATEX zone?

The first thing any organisation must do is carry out an extensive analysis of the environments in question and ensure any devices being considered are certified to the right level. While a device certified for ATEX zone 0/20 would be fine to use in a zone 2/22 environment, the same cannot be said for a zone 2/22 certified device in a zone 0/20 environment. At the same time, there’s no point investing in a fleet of zone 0/20 devices if no such environments are present within the facility. 

2) Is the manufacturer reputable and experienced?

With so many manufacturers now claiming to offer ATEX certified devices, taking the time to ensure they are both reputable and experienced in ATEX technology is a key part of the process. How long have they been in business? What do existing customers have to say about their devices? What kind of after sales support do they offer? The answers to these questions should play a central role in any final decision.

3) Are the devices third party tested (and by whom)?

All ATEX devices certified for use in Zone 0 and Zone 1 must be tested by an independent third party. Any absence of this should raise immediate alarm bells. Even if certification has taken place, it’s important to investigate who exactly has carried it out and what their standing is within the industry. There are highly respected and recognised associations out there which specialise in ATEX and IECEx product approvals, however there are also several less scrupulous certification bodies which is why it’s crucial to do some homework in this area before committing.

4) What is the repair/replacement policy?

The challenging working conditions of industries such as oil & gas, manufacturing, petrochemicals and refining means accidents inevitably happen, and devices need to be repaired or even replaced. However, in order for a device to keep its ATEX rating, repair work must be carried out by an approved engineer or third party. If not, compliance will be lost, leaving the organisation exposed to significant liability in the event of an accident. As such, it’s important to spend time researching the repair/replacement policy for any device being considered. Some manufacturers offer warranty that guarantees a device’s ATEX rating is protected in the event of it needing to be repaired. However, this may not be the case for all manufacturers, so don’t be caught out.

Conclusion

As the drive for digital transformation continues to gather pace across the industrial sector, digital devices are finding their way into all sorts of areas where previously there were none. This represents a positive step in terms of productivity and operational efficiency, but it also introduces a significant level of risk that must be addressed in order to ensure worker safety and regulatory compliance. The growth of ATEX certified, intrinsically safe devices in recent years has taken much of the pain out of workflow and procurement processes, but with so many options now available, it’s absolutely critical that organisations carry out their due diligence before committing to a final purchasing decision.

About the author:

Sophie Maxwell is Business Development Manager at Getac, focusing specifically on the Utility and Oil & Gas industries for the UK, Ireland and the Nordics. She has been at Getac for almost 2 years now. After studying Psychology at University, Sophie started off her career in technical sales, selling automation equipment into the manufacturing industry before moving into the IT sector.


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