Plant & Works Engineering
Protecting remote workers
Published:  15 November, 2017

From tank farms to petrochemical plants, exposure to toxic gases is one of the biggest risks workers face, especially those who work remotely and or alone. PWE spoke to Prabhu Soundarrajan, Global Connected Worker Leader for Honeywell Industrial Safety, about how the latest Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)-enabled technology is pushing the boundaries of gas detection and monitoring, while also helping businesses increase productivity.

Why is toxic gas such a threat to remote workers?

Operating remotely, out of the safety manager’s sight, is a daily occurrence in the sectors such as downstream oil and gas, in which entering challenging and hazardous environments, such as confined spaces, is commonplace. Depending on the application, the atmosphere in such spaces can contain a mix of flammable and toxic gases that can build up very quickly, with fatal consequences. Every year in the U.K. about 15 people are killed and more are seriously injured while working in confined spaces [1].

Can you name some of the key challenges that safety managers face when it comes to protecting remote workers from toxic gases?

One key challenge is that, until now, safety managers have had limited options in terms of gas detection. Portable gas detectors will warn of a gas emergency but not of biomedical dangers such as abnormal body temperature and blood pressure, which can be early signs of an imminent threat. More importantly, portable gas detectors alert only the worker while safety managers remain unaware of the immediate emergency. Even if the gas detector is equipped with a panic button, this is of limited use if a worker is down due to gas exposure, fall, or other safety incident and is unconscious or unable to activate the alarm. Other alarms, which rely on mobile networks, may prove unavailable or unreliable, depending on network and environmental conditions.

Another key challenge for safety managers is ensuring that gas detectors are inspected and maintained on a regular basis and compliant with regulations, which is key to ensuring that workers can rely on them. Keeping records of all these operations manually can be very time consuming and costly.

To what extent can the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) revolution help safety managers address such challenges?

Undoubtedly, IIoT-enabled technology has an important role to play in helping protect remote workers more effectively. On one hand, 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 12-hour shift. On the other, connectivity has become extremely accessible and powerful, offering new opportunities to develop connected safety solutions.

Bluetooth connectivity, for example, now enables a worker to automatically connect their portable gas detector or other device to their smartphone. Wireless connectivity then enables the safety manager to immediately view, on their laptop or smartphone, which worker is using the device and monitor their safety closely. It is possible to access critical data such as toxic gas readings, man-down alerts and the worker’s location, which are automatically transmitted, wirelessly, in real time, by the portable device. In addition to Bluetooth, these devices also support Wi-Fi, Mesh, and GPS wireless communication protocols to ensure that lone workers stay connected even if there is no network coverage.

How is it possible to use data to prevent injuries in the era of the IIoT?

Armed with intelligent health and safety data, the safety 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. The data is also stored so that safety managers can run reports on a population of workers, or an individual worker, and monitor their exposure to hazardous substances over time. This is key to tackling ill health before it’s too late, with data informing decisions about working patterns so that, for example, a worker’s exposure levels over a particular shift are reduced.

The newest 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. Intelligent harnesses are able to measure personal vital statistics - such as heart rate, body temperature, breathing rate and posture - and immediately make these available to safety managers via portable wireless transmitters. The safety manager can access this information remotely via the cloud, on a smart phone or PC, and use it to protect the worker more proactively, preventing heat stress injuries, making informed decisions about overwork/stress levels and responding to ambient temperature or ‘hot zones’, wind direction, humidity and other atmospheric variables.

Compliance with safety legislation costs the European chemical and petrochemical industries an estimated €2 billion per year [2]: how is it possible to convince companies that investing in safety can actually help them reduce – rather than increase - cost?

The answer lies in the ability to automate safety compliance management processes and the latest gas detection technology is a testament to this.

Companies in sectors such as the chemical and petrochemical industries often have to manage large fleets of portable gas detectors that need to be maintained on a regular basis to ensure that workers can rely on them. Some of the latest safety management software platforms simplify device configuration, testing and maintenance, streamlining compliance administration for safety managers by generating testing, certification, incident and other key reports at a glance.

It also makes the work of maintenance engineers easier by providing them with intuitive device configuration using logical data groups, consistent configuration across all devices and quick instrument configuration supported by device templates. Automated notifications alert the safety manager if a product certification is expiring. The latest platforms also offer a comprehensive view of device health by consolidating calibration, bump test and event data.

Some companies may still see further investment in health and safety as a potential ‘burden’ to productivity: do the latest advancements in gas detection technology actually show that enhancing safety goes hand in hand with improving productivity?

Absolutely. By enabling portable gas detectors to automatically communicate data directly to the control room, in real time, automated safety compliance and monitoring can enhance productivity in a number of ways. Firstly, it makes it unnecessary for workers to stop every few minutes to send information such as gas readings back manually, thus reducing downtime. Secondly, it gives workers the confidence that the equipment they’re using is fit for purpose and that their exposure levels are being monitored closely. Thirdly, it gives workers the confidence to focus more on the job in hand, thus improving overall productivity.

Additionally, the advantage of creating a connected, smartphone-centered ecosystem is that workers no longer need to carry additional pieces of equipment, such as scanners or cameras, as these functionalities are integrated into one device. This improves the worker’s comfort and ease of use when they operate in high-risk environments, which can range from awkward, hard-to-access structures and piping, such as process vessel platforms and access ladders, to conveyors, cooling towers, pipe bridges and confined spaces, which can have a positive impact on productivity.

How do you see connected safety evolving in the future?

The continuous development of the smartphone infrastructure, combined with the growing power and accessibility of wireless connectivity, will drive further advancements in the area of health and safety. One advantage of adopting a connected safety approach is its scalability, meaning that it can be applied to safety equipment beyond gas detectors, including PPE.

In the future, more and more companies will want to equip their workers with truly connected safety equipment that enables them to protect them more effectively, giving them access to intelligent health and safety data.