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Mobility solutions for explosive hazardous environments

Author : Dave Schmitt, President, Airo Wireless Inc.

22 December 2013

On the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha explosion, it is easy to remember why there is a continued push for safe operations in the oil & gas world – the prevention of both loss of life and destruction of infrastructure. At the same time, high hazard industry managers have many business challenges. Recruiting, training, managing and ultimately replacing a high-cost and ageing labour force has large bottom line impact. Asset productivity is a constant challenge. 

Dealing with an ever-increasing quantity and scope of regulations is tough. Maximising the efforts of a dispersed workforce is key. All of these challenges beg for technology centered solutions that can leverage limited resources, while maintaining or enhancing safety.

The technologies currently used in explosive hazardous environments are largely considered obsolete in other enterprises (fixed land-line phones, radios, data collection on paper, manual work order assignments, paper manuals, etc). The proper focus on safety and up-time has prevented the use of technologies readily available and commonly applied in other businesses.

While smartphones have altered the way industrial field forces communicate and collect data, industries with workers in explosive atmospheres have been prevented from embracing the technological benefits. Although other businesses have been turning to mobility strategies engaging powerful enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and mobile applications, the handsets that run these programs create risk in explosive atmospheres, since internal parts and external plastics create heat and sparks sufficient to ignite explosive gases in rare conditions.

Although there is a sea change occurring in the oil & gas world, as enterprises embrace the “Digital Oilfield,” there are many industries that deal with the same issues. Industries with workers in explosive gas and dust atmospheres (including hydrocarbon refining storage and transport, chemicals and pharma, food and beverage, mining and many others) all deal with similar problems. These can be addressed with handheld technology, but the threat of explosion has prevented smartphone usage until now.

How real is the threat of ignition from handheld electronics? Powerful and compact handheld units contain sparking parts such as vibratory motors, and can achieve heat levels capable of ignition.

Video sites on the internet are replete with security videos of individuals at petrol stations accidentally igniting fires and explosions with their cell phones. Whether by internally generated heat/spark, or static electricity from the plastics, an ignition possibility even on a rare occasion must be avoided for safety reasons.

This is the reason that government regulations prohibit the use of cell phones in explosive hazardous areas. Although the probability is very low, the consequences are very high. For example, on a Wednesday afternoon, in June of 2006, hazardous vapours were generated by an overheating of flammable liquid in an open-top tank at the Universal Form Clamp (UFC) plant in Bellwood, Illinois outside Chicago, USA. The hazardous condition was reported to supervisors, and the operation was shut down. Soon after, a delivery driver walked into the vapour-filled building talking on his cell phone, and the explosive atmosphere ignited. The driver died. Five others were treated for serious injuries.

Explosive atmospheres can be composed of flammable gases, mists or vapours, or by combustible dusts. If there is enough fuel and oxygen, then only a source of ignition is needed to cause an explosion. In areas where there is a risk of gas or dust explosions, strict regulations apply to equipment and facilities.

The HSE function generally looks for explosion protection to prevent or restrict potentially explosive atmospheres, avoiding the use of combustible substances, limiting concentrations, or inerting (using nitrogen or carbon dioxide), isolating via explosion or flame –proof boxes. Handheld electronics are not good candidates for most explosion protection schemas, except for intrinsic safety. Intrinsic safety is defined as physically incapable of creating heat or spark sufficient to ignite an explosive atmosphere. Intrinsic safety for cell phones demands certification under one or more of the world certification standards: ATEX in the EU, UL913 7th Edition in North America, and IECEx in the rest of the world, with minor variations in some countries.

Hardware solutions exist that are certified intrinsically safe although the offering is limited.  There are enterprise devices that collect data and allow communications, although they are too big to carry constantly and prohibitively expensive for some applications. Feature phones with limited uses are available that provide better communications than radios, but do not allow data collection or use of apps. Other developments include intrinsically safe smartphones that allow comms and data transfer, as well as access to apps like SAP, Invensys and others.

Recent advances in software technology have allowed high hazard industry managers to use the latest applications and software to drive operational performance. Intrinsically safe smartphones now allow:

•  GPS asset tracking

•  Email

Some intrinsically safe smartphones
Some intrinsically safe smartphones

•  Forms and data collection

•  Compliance

•  Labour Time Tracker

•  Field Force Management

•  Work Order Assignment

•  Dispatch

•  Encryption

•  Optimal Geographic Routing

•  Emergency/Lone Worker

•  Visual Image Sharing

These managers are now using mobile devices to:

•  Conduct field audits, inspections, assessments

•  Capture photo/audio/video evidence for reporting; capture non-compliance/observations/findings in the field (which can then be analysed for trends and reported upon to drive safety, quality, and compliance improvement)

•  Record and assign corrective actions/ work orders/ tasks, etc.

•  Verify and record completion of the action items with a mobile device providing instant reporting; and to capture GPS locations of incidents, non-compliances, and actions (which can then be viewed on GIS maps for easy identification of problem areas / locations)

The average oil & gas worker is a highly-paid specialist who spends considerable time in dangerous environments. Mobility solutions for these workers can accomplish two giant tasks. Mobile solutions can ensure that labour is always put to best use and can leverage specialised expertise into more working environments more rapidly. There are now applications that allow oil & gas managers to get a real-time view of worker locations and what they are doing. This allows for dynamic work order assignment and for automation of manual tasks, like time cards.

High hazard industries are strongly attentive to worker safety. Top managers are now applying these smart tools to achieve business objectives more safely. Turnarounds become safer when communications are more complete, while orchestration of hot work permitting can be accomplished more rapidly with safer results. Devices with emergency functionality provide an electronic safety net for workers and precision real-time GPS location capture for each worker allows an ability to verify that individual workers are operating under prescribed safety and operational limitations.

The power and organizational impact of ERP systems and mobile applications, that have been absent for enterprises with workers in explosive atmospheres, are now finally available. Managing, training and protecting human capital is key to sustaining growth and maximising profits in a world of rising capital/operating costs. With the advent of intrinsically safe, highly rugged, handheld communication devices, a golden opportunity exists to glean efficiencies and bottom line impact.


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