Understanding the Origins and Development of Intrinsic Safety Technology in Industrial Settings

Welcome to the second in our exclusive five-part series examining the benefits of intrinsic safety. We’ve already taken a look at some advantages intrinsic safety has over alternatives such as containment devices and purging. In this installment, we’re focusing on the origins of intrinsic safety technology and how it’s evolved into a globally accepted safety standard.

The risk of fire and explosion within industrial facilities never goes away, even with advances like industrial automation and remote monitoring. In fact, the more connected electronic devices a facility has, the more safety protocols an organization requires. Read on to explore the history of intrinsic safety technology and how it helps prevent fires and explosions, protecting assets and lives.

The History and Origins of Intrinsic Safety

As with many safety precautions we use today, intrinsic safety has origin born in tragedy. In the early 20th century, coal mining was a massive industry worldwide, particularly in the U.K. Coal mines were extremely hazardous: coal dust could ignite, but there was also the risk of methane. The two combined caused violent and deadly explosions. 

Several pits at Whitehaven near Cumbria, England, were the sites of terrible explosions between 1910 and 1947. Worse than all of these was the Senghenydd colliery disaster of 1913 in Wales. 439 miners died after a methane and coal dust explosion that was so powerful that it sent a two-ton cage flying back up the mineshaft, completely destroying the pit head. 

The cause? Bare wires and batteries used to send signals along the mine tunnels. The signal wires were very long and needed so many batteries that they produced enough energy to ignite the dangerous “firedamp,” a highly flammable combination of methane and hydrogen found in deep mines. This, in turn, caused the coal dust to explode, resulting in the worst mining disaster in British history.

Engineers realized on the back of this that they needed to keep energy levels low, and their first attempts focused on reducing the size of the batteries. It wasn’t until the 1960s and the advent of semiconductors that intrinsic safety as we know it today began to develop, working to reduce heat and the risk of sparks across entire systems.

Modern Industrial Safety Concerns

Thanks to movies and T.V., many people think that fires and explosions only occur when open flames and gas are present. In reality, even a build-up of static electricity can create the spark needed to cause combustion. A sudden change of pressure can sweep dust particles into an area that’s so hot they could ignite. Fibers and flyings are small pieces of combustible or conductive material that can move around or build up to the point that they cause a serious safety hazard. 

One example of this is lint in industrial dryers. If not removed regularly, it can ignite, particularly if it gets accidentally transported to a more hazardous location. In the food industry, pepper, sugar, and flour are massively combustible and can cause disaster if safety protocols are not in place.

All industrial settings must adopt systemic thinking to ensure every aspect of their facility and its equipment is taken into account when considering safety procedures and protocols. 

How Intrinsic Safety Works as a System

In our previous article, we introduced the concept of the ignition triangle. It states that fire always needs three components: fuel, ignition, and oxygen. The ignition can come from various energy sources, such as a hot piece of equipment or a spark caused by static electricity. The fuel is anything combustible, from gas to fibers. 

Intrinsic safety technology works by removing one element of the ignition triangle: the energy. This means equipment in hazardous areas is entirely isolated from energy sources that could cause a spark. intrinsic safety also ensures that temperatures within the system never go above the point where they could ignite the materials in the hazardous area. 

Intrinsic safety should be implemented system-wide in hazardous areas to ensure the whole facility is protected from the risk of sparks and subsequent explosions. This means ensuring the wiring and all components connected to the equipment meet designated safety standards. Installing an effective intrinsic safety system requires expert electrical engineering skills.

Benefits of Intrinsic Safety

Many safety protocols work by either minimizing risk or containing fires or explosions. Intrinsic safety goes beyond this by taking a holistic and preventative approach. This provides long-term reassurance and financial benefits for industrial organizations by protecting productivity and avoiding expensive shutdowns. Having to stop production due to disaster, no matter how minor, can damage your reputation and prevent you from getting contracts in the future. 

More importantly, preventing explosions saves lives, making your facility a safer place to work.

Intrinsic safety is about shifting to a holistic way of thinking. If you compartmentalize, as some safety methods do, you reduce some risks but aren’t actually preventing combustion. One of the benefits intrinsic safety provides is genuine peace of mind, knowing that your organization has taken every step to avoid the three corners of the ignition triangle from coming together.

In our next article, we’ll look at industrial best practices surrounding intrinsic safety, especially for more complex, multi-designation sites. If you want more information on this or other industrial safety topics, contact ICA Engineering to discuss your needs.

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Intrinsic Safety with ICA Engineering – YouTube

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