How to Reduce the Risk of an Explosive Atmosphere
BOOM! Isn’t something you want to hear when you’re at work.
In fact, it isn’t something you want to hear at any time unless it’s following a ‘Drop the Mic’ moment. Seriously though, the workplace is dangerous enough. Without some maturity, common sense and sensible behaviour, any workplace can hold dangers within. At the extreme end are those working in explosive atmospheres. It’s obviously an environment you want to avoid if at all possible, but it can exist in places you might not think of.
An explosive atmosphere is defined as a mixture of dangerous substances in the air under atmospheric conditions. Atmospheric conditions generally refer to ambient temperatures and pressures of between -20° C and 40° C or 0.8 – 1.1 bar respectively.
The atmosphere is explosive if, after ignition occurs, the combustion will spread to the entire unburned mixture. It might sound like explosive atmospheres are extreme and rare, but they can be caused in a number of ways. Flammable gases, vapours and mists or combustible dust all pose great risks to anyone working in them. This can include garages where vehicle spray painting occurs or those places handling fine organic dust such as grain flour or wood.
The good news is that the control of fire and explosive risks are governed by legislation. The Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmosphere Regulations 2002, known as DSEAR covers what employers need to do to protect their employees from those risks. It’s also useful for employees to know, as they are going to be the ones in the midst of these environments.
The other good news concerns avoidance. You don’t want to put yourself at risk by walking into a potentially explosive atmosphere if you don’t have to or by accident. You want to avoid these areas wherever possible. Employers need to classify areas where explosive atmospheres may occur into zones.
For gases, vapours and mists, the classifications are Zone 0, 1 or 2. For dust, the zones are classified as 20, 21 or 22. The zones must be classified with clear signage and on drawings.
Equipment Needs Special Precautions
If you find yourself having to clean one of these areas, then the equipment you use needs special precautions. The equipment must not increase the risk of explosion. It sounds obvious, but the equipment must have a low probability of creating a source of ignition. This may mean that equipment that is constructed to a less rigorous standard may be used. The equipment is also categorised (1, 2 or 3) depending on the zone in which it is to be used.
These zones are based on the frequency and persistence of the explosive atmosphere. This subsequently determines the controls needed in the area. It controls the types of fixed and mobile equipment that can be used to reduce the risk of ignition sources and electrostatic discharges.
Where cleaning or maintenance is needed, assuming the combustible dust or fumes have been removed, then an area can be reclassified as non-hazardous for the duration. If not and the cleaning or maintenance could increase the risk, then it may be that the zone(s) need to be enlarged.
In many of the industries that work in these areas, the explosive atmosphere can’t be avoided. It’s part of the work they do, but with risk assessments, control measures and high-level management, they can be made safe. Working in them is a risk, but it’s one that can be mitigated, even if you can’t avoid it.
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