Gas Detection in the Workplace

As a safety manager, visual cues pointing to risks and hazards are around us every day, and they are constant reminders of areas that are in need of safety upgrades. However, when a safety risk is invisible, soundless, and sometimes without smell, as is the case for many gases, it can easily slip by unnoticed. According to OSHA, all confined spaces have to be equipped with gas monitors to ensure toxicity levels stay well below thresholds that will harm employees. To get a better grasp on just what that means, let’s look at the specifics of confined spaces and gas detection.

Confined Space

According to the Occupational Health and Safety article on Confined Spaces and Gas Detection, OSHA defines a confined space as meeting the following 3 criteria:

  1. Has adequate size and configuration for employee entry
  2. Has limited means for access or egress
  3. Is not designed for continuous employee occupancy

It is important to note the first qualification which states that a space be big enough for employee entry. This creates a technical loophole in some cases, where tanks and spaces technically not designated for employee entry are entered anyways. Some business owners take the space’s being outside of the confined space definition as permission to not monitor potential employee exposure within it, a huge mistake if OSHA ever catches wind of this . As with all safety regulations, don’t cut corners. Number three is also important, because confined (and monitored) spaces are not the same as normal employee workspaces. In addition, “permit required confined spaces” meet the above criteria and at least one of the following:

  • Contains or has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere
  • Contains a material that has the potential for engulfing the entrant
  • Has an internal configuration that might cause an entrant to be trapped or asphyxiated by inwardly converging walls or by a floor that slopes downward and tapers to a smaller cross section
  • Contains any other recognized serious safety or health hazards

Choosing Monitors:

Gas detection monitors can run from very cheap and simple, to very complex and expensive. In finding the right monitor to use for your confined space(s), consider the following criteria:

Placement: While taking regular samples with a hand-held monitor can be okay in some cases, it is recommended that you use a semi-permanent fixture monitor within the confined space. Many of these can be easily mounted on walls and ceilings, keeping them secure and out of the way. One of the biggest reasons for an on-site, installed monitor is that you get constant testing, meaning there’s no lag time between gas levels becoming dangerous and employee awareness of such.

Range of Detection: By “range” I don’t mean how far off it will detect gas levels from (almost any industrial monitor should cover most confined spaces without trouble), I’m talking about what items the monitor can measure. Toxic gases aren’t the only thing you have to worry about; oxygen and other gases which can cause combustibility in the air are also threats to employees that need to be monitored. OSHA requires your monitor be able to detect all applicable gases.

Recording Function: OSHA requires that records be kept of the gas levels in a confined space at regular intervals. By purchasing a slightly more expensive model of detector, managers can save themselves a lot of time by making use of these devices’ internal recording systems. These detectors are able to store their measurement data, which can then be downloaded to a computer at any time. Record keeping really couldn’t be any easier than that, and I definitely recommended shelling out just a bit extra for this functionality.

Current Reality of Gas Detection

Truthfully, putting in a clear effort to follow OSHA’s regulations and letting your employees in on the work you have done will put you ahead of most managers. According to Gas Safety In the Workplace, the statistical analysis of how safe workers feel isn’t exactly stellar:

  • 60% of employees are not very confident that the gas detectors in their workplace actually work
  • 92% of workers say that they would feel reassured if their organization installed gas detectors with an AutoTest function
  • 1 in 4 managers would continue work as normal if the gas detectors in a plant failed

While these statistics are presumably pulled from a UK workforce, the same issues nag at employees here in the U.S. While the above are a good place to start, here are some other ways to make sure that your own employees feel safe while at work with regards to gas safety.

  • Post pertinent safety signs requiring employees to utilize proper breathing protection (such as this safety sign).
  • Label all pipes according to their contents so when employees are aware of the risks involved with working around such pipes they can proceed with caution accordingly. Some pipes may contain dangerous gases such as Sulfur tetrafluoride so pipes should be labeled as such.
  • Prominently display signed and dated inspection sheets that let employees know when and by whom gas detector functionality was checked. Inspections should check batteries (or connections if it is directly powered from an outlet), test the alarm (think of how you test your family’s smoke alarm at home), and ensure that the unit hasn’t been tampered with or received any potentially compromising physical damage.
  • Have an evacuation plan in the event that your detectors stop functioning, and certainly in the event that they set off alarms for dangerous levels of a gas or contaminant. All employees should know these procedures beforehand so that they are carried out in a quick, orderly, and non-panicked manner.
  • Train managers on the importance of proper gas detection and gas detector maintenance; don’t let them disregard this important segment of safety just because a harmful event is unlikely.
  • Ensure detectors are mounted in an appropriate manner for the position and environment they are in. For example, if any environment is especially humid, adhesives may loosen and peel, necessitating a different type of mount.

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