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See the Light

Coming out of the shadows for lighting safety

When we think of safety lighting the mind heads straight for torches, scene lighting, ATEX lighting and all manner of aids to illuminate and avoid potential hazards. Yet workplace lighting, if not orchestrated with a considered approach, can also be blinding, or can create shadows and thereby conceal, rather than reveal as was intended, the onsite hazards.

Echolocation is an amazing thing. This “superpower” allows animals such as bats to see or detect things they would otherwise miss, even in absolute darkness. Certain species of snake use heat-pits on their faces to find their prey in the darkness of night; unfortunately, we humans are not gifted with such amazing talents. Usually, we instead have to rely on natural light from that huge yellow ball of fire in the sky that we call the sun.

When the sun has set and night is upon us, however, in most cases we need to use some kind of artificial light to view the world around us (although romantics would argue walking along a moonlit beach is one exception to the rule). Streetlights, torches, headlights, candles, and even matches can all be used to allow us to peer into the darkness. Yet our methods of using this artificial light can often cause problems. Indeed, the light itself could be a problem, blinding us rather than allowing us to see, or hiding things in shadows and blindspots.

You are driving down a road, which has no streetlights, during the night. You can see the other vehicles on the road, as they have their lights switched on. They can see you for the same reason. This is all well and good, until a vehicle comes towards you using their “full beam”. This leaves you dazzled and unable to see for a few moments. As the problem vehicle goes past, and your vision returns, you can see too late that the traffic ahead of you has stopped. You cannot react quickly enough, and a collision is the end result.

Working on a site at night, a company provides its workforce with mobile lighting towers. As they have their own electrical supply in the form of a diesel engine and generator, these towers can be placed at strategic points around the site, without relying on power cables or connections to other electrical systems, turning night into day. Unfortunately, one of these towers has not been placed correctly, casting a shadow next to a large piece of equipment. This shadow hides anything within it, in this case, a technician working on the equipment. He steps out of the shadow to fetch some tools from his vehicle parked nearby, straight into the path of an oncoming forklift truck. Fortunately, the forklift truck operator is travelling slowly. Reacting quickly he is able to stop his machine in time, resulting in a near miss, which gives them both nothing more than a severe fright.

Movement and light

Some people are attracted to money and fame, others cannot resist the beauty of a masterpiece, yet others cannot resist the temptations of food. Despite our different passions, two things that we are all commonly attracted to are movement and light. So why is this so important? If we see movement out of the corner of our eye, we naturally want to observe it, as we want to ensure it is not a source of danger for us. This is a natural, basic instinct for all life.

“the lighting we choose to use could interact with, or affect, our working environment”

Basic instincts

Predators depend on this to spy on prey trying to camouflage itself in the surroundings. Prey do a similar thing, lookouts spying for hunting packs and potential ambushes, whilst their fellow animals graze for food, or drink at a river. In this cat and mouse game, this is where light plays its part. A crocodile could be given away by a flash of light reflecting off the scales on its back, giving prey that split second to react and escape the crocodile’s attack. Without light, the crocodile would be virtually invisible in the dark waters of the river. In a human scenario, Pilots can look out of their windows for other aircraft by seeing light reflecting off the metal surfaces of wings and so on. At night, they would look for aircraft lights to avoid collisions.

A good use of exploiting these instincts, is the flashing beacon. In heavy industry, lots of fixed and mobile equipment have flashing beacons attached to them, usually in an orange or yellow colour. The ‘flash’ comes from the fact that the bulb spins. This combination of light and movement inexorably draws the human eye to look in that direction. In an everyday scenario, this could be an emergency services vehicle, battling its way through heavy traffic. Picture the scene: you’re waiting patiently at some traffic lights, and do not hear the emergency vehicle’s siren at first as you are listening to your radio and it is raining quite heavily. Your eyes catch a flash of blue in your wing mirror, however, prompting you to look closer. Seeing the emergency vehicle, you move with the rest of the traffic, giving it space to race through and help whoever has requested emergency assistance.

Lighting issues

So too much or too little light can be a problem. Too much light can blind workers. Too little light can hide hazards out of sight of the workers. Yet these are not the only issues. Flickering can also be an issue. This is where the light has some sort of problem, such as a short circuit, so is switching on and off randomly. This can cause distraction and annoyance to our workers, leading to mistakes and accidents. Let us now have a look at some other issues.

The lighting we choose to use could interact with, or affect, our working environment. Think of a confined space, for example. The space itself could be relatively harmless, but what happens when our worker decides to light up the space using a candle? Over time, the smoke from the candle could fill the space, causing our worker to pass out from a lack of breathable air. It may seem silly in today’s modern world, but this was generally the only source of light for many people until electricity was invented, and in some parts of the developing world this is still their reality.

Think of the same scenario, but this time we use a fluorescent lamp. No smoke and no naked flame means no problem, right? Actually, wrong. Like most electrical items, lamps and lighting systems contain switches and relays, areas which can potentially “spark”. If the confined space happened to contain a flammable gas such as hydrogen sulphide or methane, for example, one small spark could be all it takes to cause a catastrophic fire, explosion or both. Some people would say that other controls, such as gas testing procedures in the oil and gas industry, would prevent this sort of incident from happening. The question here, however, is what would happen if the testing was performed incorrectly? What if the gas entered the confined space during the work?

Let’s think about other industries and scenarios also. Would a car mechanic working in an engine bay perform gas testing? What about someone in a recycling factory, sweeping dust? Combustible dust explosions are more common than you would think, and can be just as devastating as any other explosion. They can occur for the same reasons, too. As an example, only as recently as 2015 a dust explosion levelled a Wood Flour Mill and six homes in Cheshire, England, killing four people. So the working environment is a big consideration when adopting the correct lighting for work.

Lighting systems

Something else to consider should be the lighting system itself. Does it need to be mobile, or is a fixed light adequate? While using battery powered equipment would eliminate trip hazards from cables, for example, we then have to consider safe battery storage and transport (consider as examples the recent issues with a major mobile phone manufacturer and an aircraft maker). In the case of mobile lighting towers, we need to consider the hazards posed by mechanical parts (engine), hazardous substances (fuel, oils, etc), transport (usually towed by, or on, a vehicle) and so on.

How powerful does the lighting need to be? Using a system that is too powerful could generate a lot of heat energy. While lighting systems emit light for us to see, they also emit energy in the form of heat. This heat energy could in turn lead to fires, if they were positioned too close to a flammable material, for example. If used for too long, the lighting system itself could overheat and catch fire.

Positioning is also something else that needs to be factored in to our decision making. The lighting system or method may be fine for our task, but we immediately turn it into a hazard, simply by where we position it. As mentioned earlier, putting the lighting at the wrong angle can cast shadows and blind spots. On the flip side, they could also cause glare (reflection of light off shiny surfaces such as metal or glass) or be directly in the eye-line of the workers.

Mobile Lighting Towers are often damaged or destroyed, as they are positioned too close to traffic routes. Particularly on mine sites, a small trailer mounted spotlight will never win an argument against a 100+ ton dumper truck. Lamps positioned above workers pose a dropped object hazard, if they are not secured properly. Wires, cables, plugs, extension leads and so on also pose problems.

Trip hazards were mentioned earlier, but problems also arise when cables are run over by vehicles and become tangled, with cables lying on wet floors posing potential electrocution or electrical fire issues. So, there are many issues we need to consider when choosing the correct lighting system for our particular site or task. Let us talk about some of these lighting options.

Many industrial lighting systems now used are explosion proof. This does not mean they can survive an explosion, simply that they will not be the cause of one. They achieve this by being designed in such a way, that throughout the lighting system, either “sparks” cannot be produced, or they are protected somehow from flammable sources. For example, some systems have wires/switches/relays which are kept within an aluminium box, not exposed to the outside environment. Like many other explosion proof equipment, such as gas detectors, these lighting systems are also classified for the hazardous zoning system (Zone 0, Zone 1, Zone 2) usually found in petrochemical and other major hazard industries. So if you work on a hazardous site, it is important to research which lighting system fits your zoning requirements.

Some lighting systems and equipment also now use LED lamps or bulbs. LED stands for Light Emitting Diode. These have many advantages over traditional fluorescent bulbs. For example, they are much more efficient, producing light without losing significant amounts of heat. This means less of a fire risk. LEDs are also usually made with heatresistant materials, or tempered glass, making them much more durable, and less likely to be damaged. This helps minimise the hazards posed by broken glass, or leaking chemicals from fluorescent tubes.

Battery powered or wireless devices, such as torches, are another good option to consider. These eliminate any issues associated with plugs and cables. Devices that can be attached to hard hats, or worn on the head or body, not only allow a worker to see what they are doing, it also means that both of the workers hands are free for the task they are performing. Also, these devices are generally much smaller than their lamp counterparts. Combining this with no cables means there is less of a problem with housekeeping and storage space. We can also almost eliminate the issues of hazard-hiding-shadows, and glare distracting other workers, as these devices cast relatively focused beams of light which only light up a relatively small work area. A beam from such a device would have to be shone almost directly at a person, in order to show enough light to cause a significant distraction.

Should we still require a more traditional lighting system, there are other steps we can consider. Having wires and cables secured off the ground can help eliminate many problems like the risk of slips/trips/falls, entanglement with vehicles, and electrocution from water hazards. This can be done easily using lighting stands (something I have used previously in the mining industry, but also commonly found in the entertainment industry at gigs, concerts and so on). There are also cable guards that can be purchased. These systems sometimes look like speed bumps, having the cables threaded through them. This means any vehicles on site drive over the cable guard, without impacting on the cables themselves, particularly useful for areas with heavy traffic such as public roads or site entrances/exits.

Lighting towers are also an option to consider. They are easily portable, usually using a vehicle with a tow bar, and when compared with traditional lighting systems, they only take a few minutes to set-up. Especially for temporary projects, you can often rent these. There is minimal training required to use them properly (workers should be familiar with them after only a few minutes), and any issues or problems can be resolved by the rental company. Not only could this mean cost savings in the long term, it also means increased safety for your workers, as they won’t have to play guessing games trying to fix any issues.

In conclusion

So this sounds very much doom and gloom (no pun intended), but lighting safety can be simple to manage – just like any other aspect of safety. If we go through the usual pre-work systems such as risk assessment, job planning and so on, we can understand the environment of the work, the hazards posed and the specific lighting requirements for the job. With all this information to hand, we can then look at the appropriate lighting systems and techniques suitable for the task at hand. Always remember if you have any doubts or concerns, contact your safety or lighting equipment provider, or an external consultant. Giving them the specifications and requirements of the job, should allow them to suggest the right solutions you require. Also provide information and training to your workforce and remember – knowledge is power. Inspect and maintain the equipment so you can prevent fires, electrocution and other serious incidents. Work together with all the parties involved to find the right solutions. Cast away the shadows of doubt and uncertainty, so you and all your colleagues can “see the light” of safety.

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HSE professional, holding Technician status with the Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (TechIOSH). James is an approved NEBOSH and IOSH Trainer, and specialises in Materials Handling Equipment Training, for which he is a qualified instructor through ITSSAR (International Trading Standards Scheme and Register), and RTITB (Road Transport Industry Training Board).