Every year in the UK about 15 people are killed and more seriously injured while working in confined spaces. Non-lethal exposure to toxic gases can also damage workers' health. Higher concentrations of gas such as carbon dioxide may affect respiratory function. In the UK, 30,000 workers suffer from breathing or lung problems and 12,000 die each year from lung disease, which can be triggered by unchecked exposure to toxic particulates.
Rising public awareness of occupational lung disease has broadened the attention to lower-level exposure, which has led to the Indicative Occupational Exposure Limit Values Directive (EU) 2017/164.
The new legislation, which was due to have been transposed into UK law by the end of August in an update to the Health and Safety Executive publication EH40/2005 Workplace Exposure Limits, sets more stringent short-term exposure limits and eight-hour time weighted average exposure thresholds for
31 substances, including nitrogen monoxide and sulphur dioxide which were not previously regulated.
Portable gas detectors can play a key role in ensuring that a lone worker's exposure to toxic gas doesn't exceed safe thresholds. A number of well-documented challenges, however, are associated with using and managing the devices.
Having been designed for the wearer's benefit, portable detectors give the employer no information about the worker's status, if an accident occurs and a lone individual is unable to raise the alarm. Workers have to be sent out with separate personal alarms and "man-down" systems which send an alert if a wearer changes orientation suddenly or is immobile for too long.
Another challenge for safety managers, especially those responsible for a large workforce, is ensuring that portable gas detectors are inspected and maintained regularly and fit for purpose.
The latest generation of portable gas detectors come installed with Bluetooth chips, so they can transfer data wirelessly for remote monitoring. The development of low-power, miniaturised sensors and electronics, combined with high-energy density batteries, has made it possible to create portable gas detectors that can run for a full 12-hour shift.
Even older portable gas detectors can be retrofitted to offer some of the benefits of the latest wireless units. A device fixed to the charging port of the detector enables it to be paired with a smartphone via Bluetooth.
Bluetooth connectivity means that a lone worker's status can be monitored remotely on a laptop or smartphone. A supervisor or safety manager can track the worker and collect data about the environment, alarm history, equipment safety and even the worker's training record.
Critical data such as toxic gas readings, man-down alerts and the worker's location are automatically transmitted, wirelessly, in real time. In addition to Bluetooth, the latest generation of portable gas detectors also support Wi-Fi, and GPS wireless communication protocols to ensure that lone workers stay connected even when operating in areas with no network coverage.
Armed with this data, the manager can, for example, immediately alert a worker operating in a confined space to step out of a dangerous situation or send immediate rescue if a "man down" alert is received. They can make better decisions on how to rescue workers and potentially evacuate others that might be at risk.
The latest generation of portable gas detectors also integrates wearable biometric monitors to provide safety managers with comprehensive real time awareness of the health status of a worker, including heart and breathing rates and body temperature.
The data from portable devices can also be stored so safety managers can run reports on individuals or groups of workers, analysing their medium-term exposure to hazardous substances. These data will inform decisions about working patterns to control exposure.
The use of familiar smartphone technology increases ease of use. If the operating environment permits, employers can adopt a "bring your own device" approach using employees' private smartphones. If not, they can provide workers with industrial phones that offer the same ease-of-use as consumer technology.
Smartphone systems remove the need for workers to carry additional pieces of equipment such as scanners or cameras, as these functionalities are integrated into one device.
Hazardous area-certified smartphones are available for work in explosive atmospheres.
Connectivity simplifies detector inspection and maintenance. Some safety management software simplifies device configuration and checking by generating testing, certification, incident and other key reports. It also makes the work of maintenance engineers easier by providing them with consistent set-up across all devices and quick instrument configuration supported by device templates. Automated notifications alert the safety manager if a product's certification is expiring. The latest platforms also offer a comprehensive view of device health by consolidating calibration, bump test and event data.
As detectors can automatically send data to a control room in real time, workers no longer need to stop every few minutes to send gas readings, reducing downtime.
The latest industrial smartphone apps also offer on-demand training and provide information on which gas detectors and personal protective equipment (PPE) are needed for each specific task, enabling both managers and workers to verify at a glance if they have the right permit or training to access the hazardous environment.
The possibility of making other safety devices part of the connected infrastructure to enable better monitoring and quicker responses to potential threats is the logical next step. PPE, from helmets to safety harnesses, can be used to gather information, to create a holistic view of the worker's safety and health, regardless of their location.
Bringing intelligent, data-driven capability to safety compliance management operations can also help streamline the way essential safety tasks are managed, leaving the safety manager free to focus their resources where they are most needed.