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Why a fast response to safety issues in an ATEX environment is essential – and possible with the right tools

Author : Jamie Griffiths, Vatix

17 November 2020

Health and safety in potentially explosive environments can be difficult to ensure, but not impossible if the correct equipment is used. Navigating the health and safety protocols surrounding ATEX or explosive environments can be overwhelming, especially if you don’t currently have the correct tools and policy in place.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

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But it is imperative that firms regularly dealing with these potentially dangerous environments must understand how to keep workers and anyone else entering the vicinity adequately protected. Without proper preparation and fast action, the outcome could be catastrophic.

In the UK in 2019/20, 111 workers and 92 members of the public were killed in workplace incidents – 18 of these were as the result of “exposure to, or contact with, a harmful substance; exposure to an explosion, exposure to fire; contact with electricity or electrical discharge” (as well as slips, trips or falls on same level, injury by animal or strike against something fixed or stationary). All of these deaths could and should have been avoided.

As stated by the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR), explosive atmospheres are those at temperatures of between -20-40°C and pressures of 0.8-1.1 bar that encounter flammable gas, mists, vapours or combustible dust. This can cause explosions should a source of ignition also enter the mix.

Of course, many working environments (such as particular warehouses, chemical plants and more) contain these potentially hazardous conditions by their very nature, and so safety in this arena essentially comes down to two central measures – limiting the presence of explosive substances in the air, and ensuring that sources of ignition are kept from entering the environment.

A timely response to any safety concern in the workplace – especially those with as potentially devastating consequences as this – is absolutely pivotal to dealing with them correctly and avoiding disaster, allowing your workers to continue performing their roles without fear that things aren’t as safe as they could be.

Just last year the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) determined that a widespread fire started in a warehouse in Pocklington was caused by a spark from electrical weighing scales being used alongside containers of Heptane – a highly flammable liquid.

HSE inspector Dave Stewart said of the incident: “The risks associated with the decanting operation were not fully understood by the company. There were potential ignition sources present within the area where a flammable vapour was likely to occur.

“This case highlights the importance of assessing risks associated with flammable atmospheres. Employers should ensure that adequate measures are taken to reduce the formation of flammable atmospheres so far as is reasonably practicable, and to ensure that only suitable electrical equipment is used in areas where a flammable atmosphere may be present.”

In short, the combination of a lack of training and general awareness of how dangerous the substance in question was in this situation and the use of unsuitable equipment caused the fire to be started and violated DSEAR. The company was thus fined £14,000 and ordered to pay £2,377 in costs.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Making ATEX environments safer

Because of the sizeable fallout when the risks are not assessed property, DSEAR requires all employers to do everything in their power to eliminate or mitigate the risks posed to their workforce. These requirements are broken down into various instructions that must be followed.

As you may already know, ATEX refers to the European Directives designed to control explosive atmospheres. The first of these is the ATEX Workplace Directive, which relates to the requirements set out by the DSEAR on how to mitigate risk, including classification of potentially hazardous zones, selection of appropriate equipment and protective systems and verifying overall safety. This stage can ensure safety by performing a risk assessment before work is carried out.

In late 2015, an incident involving two electrical and mechanical engineers ended in tragedy when, because the consequences of draining hydraulic lubrication oil from an accumulator in the same environment as an electric heater was not properly assessed, an explosion killed them both.

The incident was dubbed “entirely preventable” and down to the company’s failure to “assess the risks of the maintenance work and identify suitable control measures to prevent an explosion” by HSE inspector Lee Schilling.

The second DSEAR directive is the ATEX Equipment Directive which looks at the second point much more deeply, digging into what organisations need to look for (such as anti-static PPE and devices suitable for use in explosive environments) when assigning particular equipment and systems to their workers.

With all of this in mind, the overall safety of workers in these environments must also come into play. Many firms make use of electrical equipment for other purposes such as lone worker alarms or SOS apps on employees’ phones, and many of these health and safety solutions just aren’t suitable for use in an ATEX zone.

So, the answer to many concerns surrounding worker safety in ATEX environments is disarmingly simple – tools that have been designed and manufactured to avoid ignition. With these, employers can still offer their workers the best safety devices without the concern that introducing new elements into a potentially hazardous environment could pose an even greater risk.

ATEX tools and devices

Jamie Griffiths, Business Development Manager, Vatix
Jamie Griffiths, Business Development Manager, Vatix

In the UK, devices, alarms and other electronics used in these situations must meet the requirements of the BIS Equipment and Protective Systems Intended for Use in Potentially Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 1996, as well as usually being tested and certified by a third-party body.

The tools and resources available to limit the problems caused by working in ATEX environments are numerous, from giving workers appropriate anti-static clothing and footwear that won’t create an electrostatic discharge, to the use of electrical and mechanical equipment that has been designed not to cause ignition.

The great thing about these specially designed safety devices is that they can cover a lot more common health and safety needs than may be immediately obvious. Depending on the alarms that are chosen, features include things such as a Man Down sensor that detects when a user has fallen, a logging system that keeps track of employees’ whereabouts and status, and two-way audio that can be activated whenever a safety incident arises.

It’s a one-stop-shop for workplace safety across the board, allowing a real-time response to potentially urgent issues. It can also help catch an incident before it even occurs, with workers on the ground being able to report safety issues that weren’t spotted during a previous risk assessment. Preparation, again, is key.

Following the devastating explosion in Beirut earlier this year, which killed at least 220 people and injured 6,000 more, employee safety when working in environments at risk from fire and explosions has been at the forefront of many more people’s minds. It is because of this that executives must work towards a safer environment for everyone.

While wearable alarms and protective clothing may seem like a small measure, making sure these are safe to use by employees entering ATEX zones could potentially mean the difference between life and death.

About the author:

Jamie Griffiths is an expert in health and safety and works with companies across the globe to improve their lone worker safety solutions. As the Business Development Manager at Vatix, he regularly consults with other professionals in the industry about the latest trends and developments in the space. 


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