Acronyms. These are abbreviated words, formed from the initial letters of other words, and pronounced as a word. In the world of work (and most definitely in safety!) there are many thousands of them: QA, QC, PPE, HSE, KPI… the list is almost endless. These acronyms can often be used to save time when discussing things with colleagues, so that you are not having to say, or type out in full, all of the words being used. They could even be used as a “coded language”, where only the people who know the meaning of the acronym can discern what is being discussed, perfect for business confidentiality and keeping information private, when it is required. They can even be used in training and teaching scenarios.
Often however, the big downfall with acronyms is that people can learn the acronym, but when they are then asked what the acronym actually means, they have no idea or cannot explain it properly. I am sure most of you reading this article today could probably work out the earlier acronyms that I gave to you:
QA – Quality Assurance
QC – Quality Control
PPE – Personal Protective Equipment
HSE – Health, Safety and Environment
KPI – Key Performance Indicator
I myself have always had a quite keen interest in the military, so I have come across many acronyms used by the world’s armies, navies and air-forces. Those of you who have served yourselves might be familiar with terms such as MLRS, CAP, HE and so on, but others may have no clue what they mean. So why on earth am I babbling on about abbreviated words? This is supposed to be a Safety Publication, right? Well, the topic of this article is based around an acronym some of you may have come across before within your working careers… ATEX.
What is ATEX?
ATEX is two European directives. The full wording of the original French language which was used is: “Appareils destinés à être utilisés en Atmosphères Explosives”. In much simpler terms, ATEX discusses the minimum safety requirements and standards of equipment and/or workplaces, where an explosive atmosphere is likely to be present. I must stress the word “minimum” as we should always be trying to do better when it comes to safety. Just like when you look at the requirements of your own countries’ Legislation, which is the minimum the government expect you to do. This is particularly important for the topic we are discussing today, as very rarely do we get any warning of catastrophic fires and explosions before they occur in the blink of an eye, devastating businesses, the natural environment, and human lives. Of course, the easiest way to deal with potentially explosive atmospheres is to not allow them to exist in the first place. Hazard Elimination would mean no risk, and therefore, no problem. However, this can be quite difficult to do in reality, and even if we could remove the hazard altogether, a “better safe than sorry” approach is the best way to manage safety in your organisation. So how do we know that something meets the ATEX requirements, and what might some of those requirements be?
“ATEX means the equipment is not ̔̒spark producing’, so it cannot trigger a fire or explosion”
Particularly when it comes to equipment, it is easy to tell if something is ATEX compliant, as it will have a symbol or marking on it. This is usually two letters placed together, EX. These letters are most commonly black in colour, found in a yellow or white hexagon, with a black border. What is this symbol actually telling us though? Well, in very basic terms, the EX-symbol is saying that the piece of equipment it is marked on is “Explosion Proof”. Now I know what you are thinking; no, it does not mean Wile. E. Coyote or other Looney Tunes characters could place some Acme Dynamite next to it, and it would survive the resulting blast. Try a 75-ton, British Army Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank for that.
In all seriousness, what it does mean, is that the equipment is not “spark producing”, so it cannot possibly trigger a fire and/or explosion. This can be done in various ways, but broadly speaking, it is to do with the design of the equipment. In the world of safety, we tend to use the term “Intrinsically Safe”. This means that safety is inherently designed into the equipment or device, it is not an “add-on” or afterthought later on. Let us explore some examples of this, starting with lighting.
We use lighting in the workplace for all sorts of different things. Lighting up dark areas of site; enabling night-time operations to go ahead; giving us that extra bit of clarity when doing very fine detail work such as working on microchips; again, the list goes on. So why do we have to use ATEX approved lighting for working in explosive atmospheres? Well, traditional lighting systems produce a lot of heat. This could be from the electrical systems powering them, or the bulbs that they use, and is a by-product of the electrical lighting process. Believe it or not, this heat by-product could be enough to ignite the flammable atmosphere the lighting is being used in. These traditional systems can also produce sparks if they are faulty (exposed cabling, short circuits etc.), again, becoming the source of ignition for devastating fires and explosions.
“in the world of safety, we use the term ‘Intrinsically Safe’ – this means that safety is designed into the equipmentˮ
This is not possible with ATEX approved lighting. Some examples of why this is the case include:
• LED (Light Emitting Diode) bulbs produce far less heat as a by-product, when compared to their traditional counterparts. They are also much stronger, and therefore less prone to breakage and shattering. With traditional bulbs, not only is this a fire risk, but also presents hazards of cuts from sharp objects and the potential of leaking chemicals from broken fluorescent lightbulbs, potentially causing poisoning.
• Equipment that could be a heat or ignition source is almost always totally removed, tucked away in a fire-proof enclosure, or sealed in such a way that any potentially flammable vapours, gases, or substances cannot gain access to these dangerous parts/areas.
Gas Testers and Zoning
Another good example of ATEX equipment are Gas Testers. These can be for testing for one gas only, or multiple gases at the same time. They have some of the benefits that we just discussed. Compared to lighting, however, an issue that can occur with ATEX Gas Testers is the competence of the people using them. They cannot understand what the equipment is telling them, or simply use the testers in the wrong way. This can cause them to identify an area as safe when it is not. Another issue is that some of these pieces of equipment may only be able to be used in certain areas or parts of site. This is where hazardous zoning would come in to play. Remember that the ATEX directives are not just about equipment but, also, requirements of the workplace.
Zoning generally has six categories:
• Zone 0 – This is an area of site where a hazardous atmosphere is likely to be present for long periods of time and/or will occur frequently.
• Zone 1 – This is an area where a hazardous atmosphere occurs occasionally during “normal operations”
• Zone 2 – This is an area of site where a hazardous atmosphere would not normally be present, and even if it was, it would only happen for a very short time.
• Zone 20, 21 and 22 – These are the same as Zone 0, 1 and 2. But instead of a flammable gas being the concern, 20, 21 and 22 applies to hazardous atmospheres caused by flammable/explosive Dusts.
An easy example of this zoning is to think of a petrol station, where you go to fill up your car with fuel. The whole petrol station and forecourt area would be a good example of a Zone 2. There should not be an issue, but every now and then, you get a whiff of petroleum vapours in your nostrils. The pumps which you use to fill your car (or have it filled up by the Pump Attendant, depending upon where you live) would be a Zone 1. Again, the petroleum vapours should only be in the pump, hose, nozzle, and your car’s fuel tank. Sometimes though you can see excess vapours escape from the opening of your fuel tank as it is filled. The smell of petroleum vapours here is also more common than just out on the forecourt. The underground petroleum storage tanks would be a Zone 0. Even if they are practically empty, the tanks will always contain some level of petroleum vapours.
By having this zoning, we know which piece of equipment can be used in which zone. This will prevent the workforce from accidentally triggering a major event by inadvertently taking the wrong piece of equipment into the wrong area.
Other Equipment to Consider
Stepping away from lighting and Gas Testers, some other benefits that ATEX equipment can bring to our workplace include, but are not limited to:
• 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 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).
Particularly where battery-operated equipment is concerned, this gives us the added advantage that we no longer have to have extensive worries about cables being spread everywhere, presenting potential slip, trip, fall and electrocution hazards. Having said this though, battery-operated equipment now gives us different concerns around having enough battery supply to hand; batteries running out-of-charge during the task, having to have safe battery charging areas, and so on.
Cables themselves, along with plug-sockets and other items can also be ATEX approved. These do look very different from their traditional counterparts, so do not expect to see the same thing as the plug-sockets you have at home. Of course, the more complicated these pieces of equipment become, the more their level of technicality goes up, which usually means an associated cost increase. What price can we put on life though? A seemingly large initial investment in ATEX equipment is far better than the economic loss through destroyed assets; loss of contracts and reputation; fines from Regulatory Bodies; and this is nothing compared to the human cost of life-changing injuries, fatalities and so on.
A Case in Point
A famous Process Safety Expert, Professor Trevor Kletz once said: “If you think safety is expensive, try an accident.” What is the Professor trying to warn us against? Well, let me give you some examples:
• July 27, 2021. Sibu, Sarawak, Malaysia – During a filling operation of an underground tank at a Petrol Station, a member of the public unwittingly drove their vehicle onto the forecourt. As they drove alongside the petrol tanker, it is suspected that heat from the vehicle’s exhaust or battery, or an electro-static discharge, ignited the flammable vapours coming from the underground tank. On this occasion, only one person was injured. See the link below for photographs and a newspaper article on the event:
• December 11, 2005. Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, England, United Kingdom – At the time, this was the largest explosion since the Second World War. It occurred at an Oil Storage Depot, injuring 45 people and causing massive damage to surrounding homes and businesses. Whilst a tank-filling operation went wrong due to a storage tank overfilling, it was sparking electrical equipment that ignited the resulting hazardous atmosphere. The link below takes you to the United Kingdom Health & Safety Executive’s Official Report into the incident:
• March 23, 2005. Texas City, Texas, United States of America – An uncontrolled release of hydrocarbons is ignited by a racing pick-up truck diesel engine, killing 15 people and injuring 180 others. A spark arrestor on the vehicle would not have allowed this explosion to occur (though some people argue that the hydrocarbons would have found an ignition source eventually anyway, due to the very poor state of many pieces of safety-critical equipment on site).
The YouTube link below takes you to the United States Chemical Safety Board of America’s hour-long documentary on this disaster:
“correctly make use of ATEX equipment in your workplace, to help make it ‘Explosion Proof’ for everyoneˮ
The ATEX Directives, and ATEX equipment, are very useful control measures for your organisation, particularly if you have issues surrounding hazardous atmospheres. As always though, these directives, and the ATEX equipment you may use, has to be part of a multi-layered approach to safety. As always, start with your Risk Assessments, to find out what hazards you actually have. It is pointless engaging specialist companies to sell, commission and install where necessary, this ATEX equipment, if you end up choosing things that will simply have no benefit to you. Ideally, these Specialists can help advise you on whether you have chosen the correct ATEX equipment in the first place, or they can even advise you on other things you may be able to do, in order to manage the risk within your organisation. Preventing releases of hazardous substances, and/or not allowing them to build up in the first place, will mean that hopefully the hazard should be mitigated, if not minimised. Only allowing essential work in hazardous atmospheres can also help lower the chance of a catastrophic incident, similar to the examples we saw earlier in the article. Correctly make use of ATEX equipment in your workplace, to help make it “Explosion Proof” for everyone.