Industrial Hygiene Instrumentation: What's Coming Down the Road?

May 13, 2004
Instruments are becoming smaller, easier to use and more versatile, and further innovations are ahead.

Despite operating in a much smaller market than their consumer electronic counterparts, manufacturers of gas and vapor detection equipment have pursued many of the same goals to make products that are smaller, lighter, easier to use and that offer more functionality. And, again like this broader market, they are selling more sophisticated products for less money.

"Price competition between manufacturers has really led to a bargain for end-user customers," observes Bob Henderson, secretary of the American Industrial Hygiene Association's Gas & Vapor Detection Systems Committee. "Ten years ago, the average price of a confined space detector was on the high side of $2,000. Today, the list price of the most commonly sold brands is around $600-800 and there are a few even less expensive than that."

That money also buys you "less," but only less in the sense of size and weight. Instrument manufacturers have responded to users' desires to have more compact, lighter instruments. "In comparison to 5 years ago, units are at least half the size and half the weight, if not more," said Dan Hirsh, the gas detection business unit manager with Draeger Safety, Pittsburgh. He said advances in electronics, as well as newer battery technologies, have helped shrink instruments.

While the ubiquitous four-gas monitor dominates the portable instrument market, manufacturers are offering an increasing array of even more versatile instruments, such as four-gas plus photoionization detector (PID) units. "Whereas in the past you might buy an instrument for one specified duty, for instance confined space entry, today, given the increased flexibility of the instruments, they will be used for a variety of applications," said Henderson, vice president of product development for BW Technologies Ltd., Calgary. This trend is driven by a continuing concern for measuring volatile organic compounds (VOCs), he explained, as well as a desire to have instruments that can be used in emergency response situations.

More flexible instruments also come in response to the demands of workplaces where a larger number of employees may be performing some monitoring function and training time is precious. Draeger's Hirsh said switchable sensors allow workers to perform a variety of jobs with one instrument. And for the safety manager who has to train multiple workers, one instrument offers an important advantage. "If one employee needs an H2S monitor, another needs a combustible gas monitor and a third needs an O2 monitor, instead of buying three single-gas units, I can buy one instrument and train all three employees the same way," he said. "If they switch jobs, they are using the same piece of equipment, so it makes my job as safety manager a lot easier."

Monitoring for the Masses

If gas and vapor monitors were once esoteric devices that existed largely in the realm of specialists such as industrial hygienists, changes in the workplace have put instruments in the hands of many more workers. Falling sensor prices and concerns about liability have combined to make monitors for the masses a reality. For example, said Hirsh, at a large chemical plant or refinery, hundreds of workers may be equipped with monitors. "If I have to arm 300 people with gas monitors, I am going to get something that is cheap and simple," he noted.

Likening the situation to buying a car, Hirsh said employees in today's lean manufacturing environments are no more likely to read through a manual in order to use an instrument than they are to read their automobile's operating manual. Because many monitors have fairly similar operating controls and those controls are greatly simplified, employees can pick them up and begin using them in short order. And manufacturers have responded by also making training material available in more accessible formats such as computer-based training and PowerPoint presentations.

Gas and vapor instruments must not only be easy to use but easy to maintain. For facilities that operate hundreds or thousands of monitors, it is both expensive and time-consuming to replace sensors and batteries, calibrate instruments and maintain all the necessary records. "Increasingly, customers are focusing on the real cost of ownership of having an instrument rather than the initial purchase price," said Henderson.

For these customers, automated maintenance systems offered by several manufacturers relieve companies of much of the labor associated with instrument upkeep. "Hook the instrument up to the computer, press the button and it does everything and documents it automatically," said Hirsh. "It takes human error out of the process." Depending on the number of instruments involved, he added, the payoff for purchasing the calibration system is anywhere from 6 months to 2 years.

Some manufacturers are pushing this trend even further. For example, Industrial Scientific Corp. is offering a program where they assume complete responsibility for a company's gas detection program. "The customer does nothing but use the equipment," explained Dave Wagner, manager of customer and product services for the Pittsburgh-based instrument company. "All the maintenance, calibration, testing, documentation and recordkeeping is back on us as the manufacturer."

Also helping to drive down cost is the rise of wireless communications for detection instruments. "Traditionally, up to two-thirds of the cost of acquiring a system could come from stringing cable and conduit," said Henderson. "When you use a wireless link to integrate the remotely located transmitters with your base station and your controller, you save enormously."

Because a safety coordinator can monitor information from these remote sensors in real time, Henderson added, it greatly improves response time in emergencies.

Bob Durstenfeld, director of corporate marketing for RAE Systems Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif., calls this movement to wireless monitoring "pervasive sensing." An array of wireless sensors, not instruments with displays as are now commonly employed, will feed information to a central control area where it is recorded and evaluated and where, if needed, response actions such as sounding an alarm are initiated.

In 5 years, opines Durstenfeld, visitors to the AIHce will find the merger of telecommunications and sensing technologies resulting in an array of sensors feeding information wirelessly to a cell phone or PDA, where resident software will integrate, analyze and display the information.

Homeland Security

Joselito Ignacio recalls that when he arranged a successful session on chemical-biological terrorism issues at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference in May 2001and then offered to write a proceedings manual, there was little interest in the project from the other members of AIHA's Gas & Vapor Detection Systems Committee. Four months later, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had made his manual a hot property and ensured that WMD preparedness and detection would continue to be an in-demand topic at industrial hygiene meetings.

Concerns about domestic preparedness are helping to drive research in, and adoption of, newer technologies for detection and monitoring, from very sophisticated monitors to new information products that will provide mobile databases for identifying chemicals of concern and appropriate response measures. For chemical detection, said Ignacio, chair of the AIHA committee and a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Public Health Service assigned to the Coast Guard, three technologies drawing substantial interest are Surface Acoustic Wave (SAW), Ion Mobility Spectrometry (IMS) and Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS).

Ignacio cautions against organizations rushing out to buy expensive detection instruments because of concerns about terrorism. He recommends that they first conduct a vulnerability assessment of their facility to examine their resources, the risks they face and what kinds of response actions are needed. "People have to be realistic and say, 'Do we have to buy this piece of equipment, maintain it, train on it, or can we depend on another response unit to provide this support?"

Henderson noted that one effect of 9/11 was not only to raise concern about possible terrorism but to create a "profound change in public appreciation of the risks" that existing manufacturing and storage facilities and transportation systems pose. As he pointed out, "If an event, whether an accident or deliberate, produces a release of toxic or dangerous gases, you have the same effect on the community. What 9/11 did was to help safety managers understand the importance of having a really good emergency response plan in place."

Draeger's Hirsh concurred. "It is a lot easier to get a carload of ammonia than military-made gases. That railcar can be rolled into the middle of a city and nobody is going to give it a second look," he said.

For RAE Systems' Durstenfeld, the next few years will see telecommunications and lower sensor prices result in the "marriage of safety and security." Sensors for intrusion and for hazardous substances will be deployed together, providing a broader range of sensing capabilities for a world that must be on alert for both accidental and intentional harm.

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