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Preparing a competent workforce for the unique hazards of hydrogen

Author : Paul Hague, CompEx Certification

08 August 2023

In this article, CompEx Certification’s Technical Authority Paul Hague discusses the importance of ensuring a competent workforce is equipped with the right skills and knowledge to deal with hydrogen.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

(Click here to view article in digital edition)

While hydrogen is a unique, volatile energy carrier with great potential for green energy, its explosive potential means that whilst existing knowledge and skills are directly applicable, it is still important to ensure that there is a flexible, multiskilled and competent workforce ready to facilitate the transition to an increasingly decarbonised energy system.

Some of the properties that make hydrogen an efficient energy carrier with minimal environmental impact are the same properties that gives it its unique hazards. On a molecular level, hydrogen is the smallest sized molecule in existence, making it a brilliant energy transmitter, however this also makes it more prone to leakage. There are also additional hazards relating to the very low ignition energies required for hydrogen.

This could lead to significant and potentially catastrophic events in terms of personal injury, fatalities, and facility damage. Still, hydrogen has already been successfully utilised in many industries, including but not limited to, petrochemical, electronics, food, and steel, for many years.

The IEC 60079 standards provide a comprehensive approach to managing potentially explosive atmospheres and already reference hydrogen: a IIC gas. However, it is also worth considering other standards and references, given the particular characteristics of hydrogen. For example, the ISO technical report 15916:2015 Basic considerations for the safety of hydrogen systems, provides guidance on the properties, key hazards and basic safety concerns surrounding hydrogen.

Other guidance issued includes the ISO 26142:2010 which relates to hydrogen detection equipment and the ISO 19882:2018 which covers the use of pressure relief devices for compressed hydrogen in vehicles. The ISO 10648-2:1994 is also relevant, as it relates to leak tightness which is an ever-present concern when dealing with hydrogen.

As mentioned, the IEC 60079 series already covers hydrogen. A competent engineer can therefore reliably use these standards to consider hydrogen in any of their design, installation, and inspection requirements, making this series of standards, principally parts 14 and 17, an integral part of a practitioner’s knowledge base.

Competency is more than just knowing subject matter; it is about being able to apply this content in new situations and draw upon other broader guidance and standards to synthesise knowledge and define the best approach for any particular scenario.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

The characteristics of hydrogen can therefore be understood through amalgamating guidance from standards within the industry. But how can an employer recognise a competent practitioner that is aware of all the principles that underpin these relevant practices, and is able to practically implement them? This demonstrates a clear requirement for new accreditations that can inform safety practices and guarantee a flexible, multi-skilled workforce. But what is the demand?

As we begin to scale capacity towards a hydrogen-based economy, the UK government set out its 2021 hydrogen strategy. The original target of 5WG of hydrogen-based production by 2030, has since been doubled to 10GW1, whilst the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy announced £25 million2 to support proof of concept projects that can produce hydrogen sustainably.

The businesses receiving this funding will need to demonstrate that they can generate clean hydrogen from sources of biomass and waste. This required cooperation of industries like water, gas, and green energy is therefore set to produce entirely new hydrogen ‘hubs’ that will be responsible for bolstering domestic hydrogen production. New safety regulation will as such be required to address the cooperation of these industries’ respective safety standards.

Foreign investment in the UK’s hydrogen market has started to take shape. Iberdrola, the parent company of Scottish Power, is investing over €170 million (£150 million)3 into the UK’s largest freight port of Felixstowe, building hydrogen plants outside Glasgow and seeking to decarbonise the distillery heating process in Cromarty, north of Inverness.

New developments such as these are forecast to create over 9,000 jobs by 2030, and 100,000 jobs by 20504. If these targets are to be met, we need a competent workforce.

Hydrogen is present in both industrial and commercial applications, and as it can be produced domestically it is an integral part of the UK’s new strategy for ensuring future energy security. Equally, it is considered a key part in creating decarbonised energy systems that help to achieve the UK’s climate targets. This is what lies behind the government’s motivation for boosting hydrogen production and is also why hydrogen education will be so important in the coming years.

In this period of transition, it is imperative to help develop the overall understanding of hydrogen’s unique properties, and the new safety practices it will demand. This is what has led to the development of courses, such as the An Introduction to Hydrogen programme built upon the principles of the ISO 15916:2015. The course is not only for the electrical personnel who may encounter hydrogen, but for anyone who may be curious to find out more about this volatile gas’s unique nature.

Paul Hague, CompEx Certification
Paul Hague, CompEx Certification

The exact safety practices which will be required in the growing hydrogen-economy are not yet evident, but this is what makes now an important time to ensure a workforce is as prepared as possible for any required adaptations. Transferrable skills developed through understandings of industry standards will play a key role, but equally, new support needs to be delivered to ensure that safe working practices are comprehensively understood by our country’s talented workforce as they prepare for this significant transition.

References

1 New UK certification to boost British hydrogen sector: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-uk-certification-to-boost-british-hydrogen-sector

2 Government £25 million for hydrogen producers: https://tinyurl.com/mrxmptrh

3 Iberdrola funding: https://tinyurl.com/5e8hpdx8

4 Government hydrogen strategy: https://tinyurl.com/55ycj5bw

About the author:

Paul Hague is the Technical Authority at CompEx, an international scheme for validating the competency of personnel working in industries with potentially hazardous and explosive atmospheres. With over 25 years’ worth of experience in this field, Paul’s role is to ensure that the CompEx qualifications continue to meet the needs of industry whilst ensuring adherence to international standards and best practice.


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