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Managing portable equipment in hazardous areas

19 July 2018

Hazardous Area Classification and the management of fixed equipment in these areas is a well understood and managed concept in most organisations who carry the associated risks.  This is thanks to the abundance of clear and concise guidance available, including the regulation and approved code of practice. Carolyn Nicholls of RAS asks whether the same can be said, however, for managing portable equipment.

In a world where technology is at our fingertips and mobile devices are becoming more and more integral to our work and personal lives, it is just as important that the processes for managing the ignition hazards of fixed equipment in hazardous areas are applied with equal rigour to portable equipment.  While the existing guidance does make reference to these types of equipment, the details are not forthcoming.  This leads to some areas for potential misunderstanding and consequent misapplication of management processes. 

In basic terms we are required to make sure that equipment that is not regarded as ‘simple apparatus’ (e.g. wrist watches), is intrinsically safe with the correct ATEX category according to the zone classification of the locations where it will be used.  But how can we make sure we are achieving compliance when there are so many variables associated with portable equipment? It is difficult to avoid overcomplicating arrangements when we must consider if equipment is required in different zones, people both internal and external to the organisation are carrying out work in the zones, and technology seems like it is advancing faster than we can categorise it. 

Comfort Blankets

One way that some organisations have navigated such uncertainty is by applying a blanket approach to managing portable devices.  It is, understandably, tempting to simply apply large zones over plant items when carrying out hazardous area classification, and in some circumstances a single zone across the establishment.  Accompanied by a blanket rule over Equipment Protection Level (EPL) categories for portable equipment across the site and a complete ban on personal devices, a conservative approach is taken which in theory will minimise the risks associated with potentially flammable atmospheres.

While this promotes consistency it does not necessarily provide practicability. Blanket zoning might seem simple at first, but the long term consequences must be considered. Difficulties will come to light when equipment is selected and maintained to standards that are disproportionate to the risk, leading to avoidable expenditure of valuable time and resource.  As technology becomes more and more integral to efficient plant operations, are more stringent controls over portable electronic devices going to start holding us back?

As for a blanket ban on personal devices, is this approach simply old fashioned?  We are starting to see devices such as mobile phones, smart watches and activity trackers become air tight and water proof, and it is not unreasonable to envision intrinsic safety becoming commonplace in the future. 

Starting on the right foot – understanding the hazard

While we might speculate about the future, we must bear in mind that there are things that we can do in the present to make sure that risks in hazardous areas are managed effectively, and practicably, in line with the guidance that does currently exist.  As long as a robust risk assessment and management system is in place, and documented, it is possible to demonstrate that the portable equipment in hazardous areas is being properly managed. 

It is important that risks are identified and assessed accurately and in proportion to the establishment; this might mean going back to the start and considering if the correct approach to hazardous area classification has been taken.  In some instances, where an over conservative approach has previously been taken, zones can be reduced and the rules for portable equipment become more manageable as a result.  Take a look at the focus change in the latest EI 15 model code of safe practice.  Can you tighten your zoning?

Where equipment classification isn’t available, guidance says that its use can be justified as long as there is a documented programme for risk management in place.  This can be achieved with careful consideration of portable equipment in hazardous areas when carrying out routine hazard identification activities.

Portable equipment should also be identified and included in maintenance management systems just as fixed equipment is. Guidance on the topic requires regular detailed inspection and visual checks of portable equipment before each use, and while information on the required intervals is vague it should be proportionate, risk based and controlled by a robust system. Do you know what portable equipment is where?

Working together

Engagement of the entire workforce is crucial in achieving successful risk management and it is therefore important that the concepts of hazardous area classification and equipment categorisation are introduced from the outset, at inductions.  Providing ongoing support via training, work permits and clarification of zones out in the field will strengthen individuals’ sense of ownership and responsibility over controlling explosive atmospheres and enable them to be confident and informed about the equipment they use to carry out their duties. This applies to employees and contractors alike.

Technology is advancing exponentially and the concepts of the Internet of Things and Industry 4.0 will soon become an everyday part of plant operation.  We must ensure that we are keeping up with these advances in our approaches to managing risk.  While it might seem like a complex task when considering the variables associated with portable equipment in hazardous areas, as long as we are taking care to understand the risks and how proportionality can be applied to manage them, it is not an impossible task and should not be a barrier to development.  We must embrace change but make sure that the risks are identified and well managed. 

About the author

A principal consultant with RAS Limited, Carolyn is a process safety specialist by training. She has been in the risk and hazard management industry for the last ten years. She leads the RAS teams of risk and hazard management consultants and has been instrumental in creating the company’s assessment methodologies. Carolyn has particular knowledge of flammable and toxic materials, and has experience of developing emergency response plans, evaluating the economic impact of safety improvements and reviewing operational controls.

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