Are you safe to re-start operations?

As governments around the world ease lockdown measures that were introduced to combat Covid-19, many of us are starting to plan how to return to business. But re-starting operations after a break can present specific gas-related problems and dangers that must be dealt with before operations begin.

A terrible example of what can happen otherwise has recently occurred in India. There, a persistent styrene leak, from a factory that had been closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak, killed at least 11 people, and harmed many more within a radius of several kilometres.

The need to check gas safety after a break in operations applies across many sectors. These include:

-Car plants

-Manufacturing facilities of all types

-Bars, restaurants and hospitality venues

-Leisure centres and swimming pools

-Refineries and chemical processing plants, where operations have been scaled back or stopped due to reduced demand

-Laboratories

-Schools and colleges

-General industrial sites that ceased operations due to Covid-19.

What are the dangers?

While the challenges arising will vary by sector, the most common include:

  • Re-pressurisation of systems. Many industries – from schools and colleges to bars and oil refineries – use pressurised systems or equipment such as boilers, steam heating systems, autoclaves, pipework, heat exchangers and refrigeration plant. If these are not correctly pressurised, they may explode, leak or cause contact injuries Any break in operations may have caused or coincided with a change (usually a drop) in pressure.

Some systems contain gases that are inherently toxic/flammable, some gases may be safe in normal process conditions but are now less safe due to changes in pressure or other conditions created by a recent shut-down. In any case, there is a legal duty to maintain pressurised systems (you can find out more from the HSE’s pages here) so it makes sense to check the system before re-starting operations, and to re-pressurise the system if required.

  • Areas used to store toxic and/or flammable gases that have not been entered for some time. This is likely to be a widespread danger because such areas are not always industrial. Swimming pool operators store chlorine; cafes, schools and colleges store gases for educational and catering purposes; food-makers, pubs and bars use gases in the manufacture and dispensing of beverages. If gas has leaked during a Covid-19 shut-down, it may endanger property and staff when operations begin again. Alternatively, the break could mean that gases are no longer stored at their optimum pressure or temperature.
  • It should also be noted that some stored goods may emit toxic or flammable gases if they have been left for a long period. For example, methane and hydrogen sulphide may be generated by organic matter that has begun to degrade or ferment.
  • Re-starting production or operations where materials/chemicals have been left unattended for some time can also be hazardous. For example, anything stored at a specific pressure may have experienced a change in that pressure, and materials stored in sub-optimal conditions (e.g. in terms of ambient temperature, pressure, exposure to light or operation) may now be unfit for purpose or even dangerous.

What should I do before re-starting operations?

Gas hazards should form part of your re-starting operations risk assessment.

When it comes to gas, Crowcon has a wealth of knowledge gathered over many years and from many installations. If you need reliable information about the gas-related dangers that may arise on your own return to operations, check out our ‘Talking Gas’ information hub, which is full of free resources to download, and our ‘Insights’ knowledge base. And if you have any other questions relating to the post-Covid return, please get in touch.

 

How aware of cross-sensitivities when using gas detectors are you?

In a perfect world, gas detector sensors would identify, isolate and measure specific gases and give precise readings for each gas in any context. Unfortunately, technology allows us to come close to that but not to achieve it completely. That is why, when dealing with electrochemical toxic sensors, we have the challenge of cross-sensitivities, sometimes known as ‘interfering gasses’.

Gas detectors generally detect a specified gas and give an alarm and/or reading in proportion to the level present. Cross-sensitivity occurs when a gas other than the gas being monitored/detected can affect the reading given by an electrochemical sensor. This causes the electrode within the sensor to react even if the target gas is not actually present, or it causes an otherwise inaccurate reading and/or alarm for that gas. Obviously, this puts the person using the sensor at risk.

Inaccuracies caused by cross-sensitivity

How not to use a gas detectorCross-sensitivity may cause several types of inaccurate reading in electrochemical gas detectors. These can be positive (indicating the presence of a gas even though it isn’t actually there, or indicating a level of that gas above its true value), negative (a reduced response to the target gas, suggesting that it is absent when it is actually present, or a reading that suggests there is a lower concentration of the target gas than there is), or the interfering gas can cause inhibition.

Inhibition occurs when the sensor simply fails to register the target gas when it is exposed to the target gas and the inhibitor together, or the inhibitor causes the sensor to stop registering the target gas for some time (which may be hours or even days) after exposure to the inhibitor.

Here are some examples of each error type:

  • Positive response error: a CO sensor has a positive response to H2 at a rate of 60%. Thus, when the sensor detecting CO sees 200ppm of H2 it indicates 60% of 200ppm (around 120ppm).
  • Negative response error: an SO2 sensor has a –120% response to NO2. So, if it sees 5ppm of NO2 at the same time as 5ppm of SO2, the reading is reduced by 6ppm, which (depending on the type of sensor involved) gives a 0ppm reading or negative value.
  • Inhibition: SO2 sensors may be inhibited by NH3, and take many hours to recover and respond to SO2

All of these errors can have adverse effects. Clearly, danger arises when toxic gas is present and the sensor does not read correctly. But even when cross-sensitivity causes an over-reading or false positive, time and resources can be wasted by needless evacuations, ventilation and other unscheduled downtime.

Some manufacturers publish cross-sensitivity data and charts, and these can give some indication of how cross-sensitivities may influence readings in those products. However, it is important not to rely on these too heavily: there can be huge differences between electrochemical sensors, manufacturers may change their sensor designs and specifications at short notice, and scientific understanding is constantly evolving. So, it is a good idea to maintain dialogue with the manufacturer’s technical support team, who will be aware of the latest information and best placed to advise on a particular sensor. It is also sensible to ensure that any staff involved in gas detection are aware of the nature of cross-sensitivity and interference, and alert to its likely effects.