Human beings. We are amazing examples of biological engineering. We have five amazing senses, that allow us to perceive the world around us.
Sight in particular. I have always been amazed at how light entering a mirror, being reflected, then going to some cells in the brain can tell someone they are looking at a brightly coloured fish while Scuba Diving 20 metres underwater, or detect the slightest movement from a small lizard trying to hide in a tree. Of course, how our eyes actually work is a lot more complicated than that, but I will leave that to the biologists to explain. My aim today is to talk about light, and lighting, and how it plays a role in workplace safety.
Why do we need light?
Light is useful for many different things. Not only does it allow us to detect an object’s location, but we can also pick out specific details and colours in the object we are seeing. Without light this would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for us to do as human beings as we would have to rely heavily on our other senses. Unlike a submarine or bat, we cannot use radar or sonar vibrations to help us see. Nor can we see heat without the use of thermal imaging, whereas some other creatures, such as certain species of snakes, can use “heat pits” to pick out their next meal in the pitch darkness of night. Of course, our best source of light is the gigantic ball of fire and gas in the sky, which we know as the sun. This is perfect, until storm clouds gather and block the sunlight, or the sun sets for the day. So then what?
Cigarettes, snipers, and relaxation
Well, now we turn to our artificial sources of light. Naked flames (such as candles and matches), torches, and various kinds of bulbs fitted into light fixtures of buildings and vehicles, all of these can help us obtain the visual information we need, which we would otherwise not get without natural light. So that’s our problems solved, right? Just grab a pair of AA batteries and a torch, and away you go! Well, unfortunately not. As always, nothing in life is ever quite that simple. The amount of light we have can present various issues.
Indeed, having too much light can be just as problematic as not having enough. The light source itself could be the hazard. A sniper can pinpoint and kill an otherwise invisible target. If that target cannot resist the urge for a midnight cigarette, the glowing ember of his cigarette will give away his position in the dark of night. In a much more common but just as dangerous scenario, lighting scented candles in a bedroom can be really helpful in relaxing some people after a stressful day in the workplace. That is until the person suddenly wakes up in the early hours of the morning, coughing and choking on the thick black smoke caused by the fire raging in their bedroom, due to the candle falling onto something flammable whilst they slept. As with any safety issue, there are various factors we need to carefully consider, so let us start by asking “why is lighting an important consideration in performing work safely?”
Having the correct type and amount of lighting means less chance of errors and mistakes in the workplace, as workers can clearly see their work area and all that it contains. Even in places where there is plenty of natural light, some businesses will provide extra lamps and other lighting devices to help their workers see critical details in their work. Some examples of this include the odd-looking head-lamp that dentists wear to see into the mouth of a patient, or different types of craftsman using high-intensity lamps for working on very minute objects. As someone who used to enjoy building plastic model kits, this was very handy for me when gluing tiny pieces of the model together, or painting very small areas of them. This lack of errors makes everyone happy, as the resultant work is of a great quality, the workers have no complaints doing their work, and the business has no issues with productivity, delays and so on.
So, what is the correct type and amount of lighting that we need?
This is the big question, and depends upon many different factors. What are the tasks that are being undertaken, and how long are they being done for? Where is the work being done? As always, this is where a competently performed Risk Assessment plays an important part in deciding the lighting needs of your organisation. Having the incorrect lighting can itself be a hazard. Having trailing cables everywhere can lead to multiple slip/trip/fall incidents. Heat from bulbs, or having naked flames, can cause fires and explosions. Positioning lighting incorrectly can itself become a hazard, by causing glare and shadows. Lighting that is not secured properly (hand held torches, broken screws of fixed light fixtures, unbalanced lighting towers) can cause hazards such as dropped objects, cuts from broken glass and other issues. One type of lighting you might consider in order to minimise or avoid some of these issues, is something called “ATEX” Lighting.
“ATEX” equipment is an example of equipment that is “Intrinsically Safe”. In other words, the equipment is designed and manufactured to be used safely in any workspace which could potentially contain an explosive environment. ATEX equipment can include single and multi-gas testers, some types of radios and other communication equipment and lighting. The bottom line ultimately, is that under normal circumstances ATEX lighting will not cause a fire or explosion, as its design makes that nearly impossible (depending upon if it is used and maintained correctly, and so on). Often people misunderstand this acronym, and believe this equipment would “survive an explosion”, an easy mistake to make if you have never dealt with it before. This type of equipment is usually identifiable by a symbol which has a black-bordered hexagon, with a yellow background and the letters “Ex” on it (the E and x are curved). ATEX equipment is usually found in the oil and gas, petro-chemical, underground mining and other industries where hazardous gasses and other environmental hazards may be present. These industries often have hazardous zoning requirements, meaning you can only use certain types of equipment, on certain parts of the sites and facilities. The purpose of this is to help limit the chances of catastrophic fires and explosions on site, which can take hold very quickly, and be utterly devastating not only to the organisation, but the community as a whole (think of some of the major fire and explosion disasters that have happened previously, such as Piper Alpha, Texas City and more recently Deepwater Horizon).
There are many features of ATEX lighting equipment that make it safe, but these features can be specific to different makes and models of equipment, so let us talk about them generally.
One common feature associated with ATEX lighting is that the bulbs are different to a standard lightbulb you would find in your home or office. Often, these are LED, or “Light Emitting Diode” bulbs. One of the benefits of these LED bulbs is that they emit less heat than a traditional bulb. Having less heat produced, means that there is less chance of a fire or explosion, a comforting thought if people are working in an area that may contain a flammable gas. LEDs are also much harder wearing than their traditional counterparts. This means that there is much less chance of physical breakage, and the associated dangers of cuts and other injuries suffered by workers caused by broken glass. Another hazard that can be avoided using ATEX lighting is the potential issues associated with hazardous substances (such as the fluids you would find in a regular type of fluorescent bulb, or again broken glass) contaminating the workers, workplace and environment.
ATEX equipment also tends to be “Non-Spark” producing. This means that all of the equipment that could be a heat or ignition source is totally removed, or is tucked away in a fire-proof enclosure, sealed in such a way that any potentially flammable vapours, gasses or substances cannot gain access to these dangerous parts. Unlike your air-conditioner remote control at home, if the ATEX equipment is battery operated, usually these batteries cannot be removed without special tools or devices.
ATEX equipment is also often difficult to modify or tamper with, as again, specialist knowledge and equipment is needed in order to carry out calibration, maintenance and so on (if that is even necessary in the first place. Some equipment is designed in such a way as to be totally maintenance free). So, all of the advantages that ATEX lighting provides can solve some issues for us, but what other measures could we consider?
Navigating further hazards
As mentioned earlier, another problem we can have is cabling… lots and lots of cabling. Lighting generally uses electrical energy to generate light, so needs some type of power source. The electrical power will usually run through cables, plugged into a mains source. Not only do we now have the issues with slips/trips/falls as mentioned earlier, we can have many other incidents where cables are caught on vehicles, moving equipment such as a pallet-truck, or even someone walking by and ripping the cables out of the lighting, snapping cables altogether or causing attached equipment to come into contact with someone or something. As an example, a forklift truck may drive through a warehouse. Workers have placed a trailing cable across the forklift’s usual work route. This cable is attached to a lamp, placed above the worker’s heads. The forklift catches the cable, pulling on it and causing the attached lamp to fall onto a worker’s head, causing an injury. Trailing cables can also increase the risk of some kind of electrical incident, if they are lying in a pool of liquid or other conductive substance for example.
So, the question arises: how can we solve the problem of cabling?
As already mentioned earlier, we could use battery-operated equipment instead. This would eliminate all of the problems associated with the cabling. However, battery powered equipment can have its own problems. Batteries can have some sort of defect, or the charge in them may not be sufficient for the workload or duration of the task. Consideration now also needs to be given as to how to safely store the batteries, as there is now a potential fire risk. The same goes for the safe charging of the batteries. Some batteries can also contain hazardous substances, so we need to ensure that we dispose of them correctly, to avoid environmental issues.
Rather than using batteries, maybe we could do something else with the cabling. Many construction sites employ items of equipment called cable guards. These are not people in uniform with weapons, checking people’s security badges, they are devices that look a lot like the speed bumps you would find in carparks, or down some residential streets. These would be placed over the cables, allowing any vehicles to safely cross the cables, without damaging either the cables or the vehicles.
Alternatively, you could make use of cable stands. These stands work by helping to keep the cables off the floor and away from potentially wet areas. These stands can even be high enough to allow people and vehicles to pass underneath them (think of high-voltage power lines as an extreme example). The above solutions are very useful for ever changing and dynamic workplaces such as construction sites. In a more permanent facility or site, you could instead consider routing the cables and wiring underneath floor surfaces, and through wall and roof spaces. You might even solve a lot of cabling problems, simply by putting additional plug sockets, or portable power sources (such as generators), in and around your workplace.
Another issue that we mentioned earlier is the positioning of the lighting. If it is portable lighting that is placed in the wrong position, this can again cause conflict with movement of people and vehicles, just like the trailing cables did previously. Mobile lighting towers, for example, are often struck by vehicles on sites, simply because they are not put into the right place.
Lighting adjusted into the wrong position or angle can also be ineffective. Someone searching for something using a torch sometimes cannot find what they are looking for, as they cannot get the torch into the correct position to light up the area they want to look into (try to think of a mechanic trying to find an oil leak in a car engine bay as an example). Not correctly positioning our lighting could also cause problems with shadows and glare.
Shadows may conceal hazards from the view of workers. These hidden dangers could include holes and other unlit open areas, trip hazards and other objects that people and vehicles could fall into/strike against.
Glare would have the opposite effect, by blinding workers. This causes them to look away from that area, again effectively hiding similar issues to those we just discussed with shadows. Glare that is intense enough could also cause issues with temporary (or even permanent) damage to our worker’s eyesight.
When compared to commissioning and installation of equipment, maintenance shutdowns of sites or testing of safety-critical equipment, lighting in the workplace seems like a straight-forward matter. After what we have discussed in this article, however, we can actually see it needs some careful consideration in order for things to be done safely. As always, thorough risk assessments, conducted by competent people, will play a crucial role in assessing the lighting safety needs of your organisation.
If there is any doubt at all, no matter how small, you can approach consultants and suppliers to help you with this process. It is also a good idea to involve the workforce. They do the many of the tasks in the workplace day in, day out, and will be a great source of information as to what lighting equipment may or may not work. This will save you from wasting time, money and probably suffering from a lot of frustration, by purchasing lighting safety solutions that do not have any benefit. This will also help to give them some ownership of the problems and solutions, motivating them to implement and use these lighting systems successfully. Let us all work together, to shine a light on a safer, happier world of work.