IH Instrumentation: Catch Problems Before They Happen

May 1, 2008
A wide variety of gas monitors are on the market today. Just take a look at any safety product catalog and you will see a range of seemingly similar gas

A wide variety of gas monitors are on the market today. Just take a look at any safety product catalog and you will see a range of seemingly similar gas detectors for industrial use. Many appear to have the same features and may even have the same price.

But this type of safety equipment is not like hard hats or safety boots. Gas monitors are fairly technical products and cost quite a bit more than other personal protective equipment. Plus, they need to be maintained to continue working properly and safely. So what does a safety manager need to know when choosing the correct industrial hygiene instrumentation for his workplace?

A gas detector is a valuable asset that carries a huge responsibility to keep workers safe from hazardous gases and bring them home alive. The monitors are designed to activate audible, visible and oftentimes vibrating alarms to signal that pre-set low or high alarm levels have been reached or exceeded. Day in and day out, tens of thousands of employees working in some of the toughest environments carry one of these instruments and count on it to provide warnings of unsafe atmospheric conditions.

This is not like the game of horseshoes — close doesn't count here. The monitor must be dead-on, or there may be a fatality. The accuracy necessary to determine unsafe conditions is set by government standards, and is at levels that are in the parts per million (ppm) range.

Good-to-Flawless Execution

For the most part, the sensing technology used by today's gas detection equipment is mature and stable and real time readings of gases in the ppm range are reliable if the right technology is used. However, just like any highly technical product, quality electronics and construction may vary on a scale from good to flawless.

The huge responsibility of protecting workers in some of the harshest environments imaginable should be felt by the manufacturers of gas detection equipment. If quality and reliability are not at the apex of all design and manufacturing decisions, then you must ask, why are they in the business?

Many companies have tried numerous brands, and may even be loyal to one that has been tried and true to their needs. Many others have been greatly disappointed and switched brands because of their dissatisfaction with functionality, high maintenance costs, false alarms or other reasons of insufficient quality.

Look for, and insist on, the highest quality product that will be on the ready to alert your workers of dangerous gases. Seek proof of third-party testing, including UL, CSA, ATEX or other agency certifications that put the instrument through its paces before releasing a certificate of approval. Look for ISO 9001-2000 certification of the manufacturing facility to ensure that quality measures and processes are in place to standardize operating procedures for consistent excellence.

Maintenance and Use

Let's assume you've done your homework: checked specifications, read third-party approvals, ensured quality certifications had been granted and acquired testimonials from colleagues to identify the best gas detector on the market. Once the homework is done and the equipment purchased, some of the real work begins.

Once purchased, this equipment takes on a new level of commitment. In the history of gas monitoring we found that manufacturers could supply the highest quality products, but customers didn't maintain them in top working condition. Proper maintenance, including a routine calibration procedure, is critical to keeping the instrument ready for use at a moment's notice. Over the past decade, docking systems have been introduced to automate much of the routine maintenance actions and ultimately increase the level of safety integrity of the equipment.

Understandably, your biggest concern is that the gas monitor does its job when called upon. However, your biggest fear should be whether the workers use it and use it properly. You can have the highest quality gas detector in the world, but if it sits idle and is not called upon for the job it is intended to serve, then it's all for naught. A personal gas detector is just that — a gas monitor to be used by an individual for the protection against hazardous gases that the worker may encounter.

Sadly, there are far too many accounts of fatalities involving workers found dead from a lack of oxygen or high toxicity levels of a hazardous gas who did not have a gas detector or who had the gas detector turned off.

I remember one account of a city worker whose job included entering a confined space every day. Nearby neighbors were accustomed to seeing the same truck coming and going from the same location, every day. One day, a neighbor noticed the truck was still parked in the same spot, well beyond the normal time. After curiosity and concern brought him to the edge of the underground vault, he saw the city worker on his knees at the bottom of the pit, in what appeared to be a praying position. Thankfully, the neighbor did not venture into the unsafe space, instead calling the municipal authorities.

The concerned neighbor learned later that the worker did not survive. Unfortunately, the gas detector that was assigned to him was found in working condition on the seat of his truck. Was it complacency, a feeling of invincibility or simply forgetfulness that was the fatal error? We never will know.

On the flip side, there are countless testimonials as to how gas monitoring instruments have saved lives and improved the level of safety in the workplace. Yet accidents like the one described above still occur and workers are still injured and killed in gas-related accidents.

This leads to one very clear realization: Manufacturers can design and produce the most reliable and best performing gas monitors possible, and those instruments can be maintained and cared for with the highest level of integrity. But if they are not used properly or not used at all, they cannot perform the function for which they were intended — saving lives.

In cases where the worker has been equipped with a gas monitor that is suited for the job, configured with the appropriate sensors, maintained properly and “bump” tested or calibrated on the day of use, but then consciously decides not to use it, human behavior has impeded the path to safety. That moment of truth may lead to an injury or fatality.

We will never know if the victim considered his or her decision to be risky behavior. What we do know is that behavioral practices can be viewed as leading indicators and predictive in nature. A worker who casually observes the safety rules or consistently overlooks safe practices exhibits behavior that is riskier than another worker who follows all rules and procedures diligently. Therefore, recorded observations of unsafe behavior can be an indicator of the proverbial “accident waiting to happen.”

Tracking Behaviors

Today's gas detection instruments are smarter than ever. On-board data logging can record whether an instrument has been turned on, how often the instrument reaches an alarm level, whether the alarms have been turned off, how often the instrument has been calibrated and other telling details. Combining this data with who was using the instrument will map out a pattern of usage and behavior. Analysis of this data can deliver leading indicators on behavior patterns that cause accidents.

There typically are two types of behaviors associated with gas monitoring instruments. The first involves patterns of how the instruments are maintained and the condition in which they are kept. The second relates to patterns of behavior surrounding how the instruments are actually used. The Industrial Scientific iNetTM database provides insight into both types of gas monitoring behaviors.

iNet is a patented, service-based system in which Industrial Scientific Corp. collects data from customers using portable gas monitoring instruments in a variety of industries. The data is retrieved from the instruments via a system of instrument docking stations and is uploaded to the iNet database via the Internet. The data includes information on patterns of bump testing, calibration and diagnostic testing as well as gas exposure data.

Although the primary purpose for collecting this data is to provide proactive instrument maintenance services, the data also can be used to provide insight into the behaviors surrounding the instruments. iNet customers are provided reports indicating the behaviors surrounding the calibration and maintenance of their instruments, as well as reports that summarize instrument and employee exposures to gas hazards and instrument alarming conditions.

It takes quite a commitment to put a gas detection program in place, no matter the size of the organization. Regulatory compliance is just the start of the obligation required to own and operate these life-saving devices.

When you supply the highest quality products and are diligent about keeping them in perfect working condition, but workers don't use them properly, then it is counter effective. If we're going to make a difference in preserving life on the job, then we must address human behavior. If workers leave their instruments in the truck, or turn them off because the alarms are annoying, then the best conceivable quality and service don't matter.

Top-down ownership and support of standard operating procedures of use and maintenance is at the heart of a best practice policy aimed at preserving human life in the workplace. A safety culture that is woven into the policies and procedures of the company inherently will affect the incident rate to a positive degree. Consider a safety audit program that includes behavioral analysis to catch problems before they happen.

Kay Mangieri is responsible for planning and directing all marketing functions for Industrial Scientific Corp. Mangieri received her M.S. degree in Industrial Administration, marketing concentration, from Carnegie Mellon University prior to joining the company in 1992 as customer service manager. She has been a member of the American Marketing Association since 1991. She can be reached at (800) 338-3287, or via e-mail at [email protected].

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