Protecting Systems, Protecting Lives: An Introduction to Intrinsic Safety for Industrial Applications

Intrinsic safety is a globally accepted way to reduce the risk of fire or explosion across a multitude of industries. In this first article on intrinsic safety (IS), we look at the definition of IS, how it helps keep workers safe, and which industries utilize IS.

Globally, the hazard control market is worth over $1.17 billion and is set to climb to $1.63 billion by the year 2022. The demand for industrial safety is rising all the time, as industrial automation transforms manufacturing and other industries. Many of these industries produce vapors and gasses, dust, or other combustible materials that could be ignited by the slightest spark – including sparks generated by computers, switches, and even smartphones. Intrinsic safety is a technology that reduces the levels of energy to a point at which they should not be able to create a spark, reducing the risk of fire and explosion.

1. Intrinsically Safe Design

To meet the criteria for IS, industrial equipment and wiring in hazardous areas must not be able to release enough thermal or electrical energy to ignite any of the hazardous materials. Fire needs three things in order to start: Fuel, oxygen, and ignition. Engineers always assume that the first two are present in the area. Their work is to ensure the risk of ignition is removed from the equation. In electrical devices, this means utilizing diodes and resistors to limit the voltage and the current, thus reducing the amount of power traveling through a system.

Intrinsic safety is one possible way of preventing fire and explosion, but there are other methods as well. Often, these methods may be employed together, creating a holistic approach to industrial safety. Some industries may combine explosion-proof equipment or areas with intrinsic safety protocols for additional and intrinsic security — and peace of mind. We’ll explore the differences between IS and explosion-proof in more detail in a later article.

2. Intrinsic Safety in the Food Industry

When thinking about the risks of explosions, many people don’t consider the food and beverage manufacturing industry. But in fact, the large volumes of chemicals, gasses, and dust produced by food manufacturing create a huge risk of fire and explosion. The U.S Chemical Safety Board reports that between 1980 and 2012, around 280 dust-related incidents required investigation due to death or injury. Confectioners and bakers use flour which is explosive, and sugar which is essentially pure fuel for fires. Intrinsic safety design removes the risk of ignition from electrical sources, making these industries safer to work in.

3. Intrinsic Safety in Pharmaceuticals

Despite working to keep people safe and healthy, the pharmaceuticals industry is at particular risk of fire and explosion due to the high volumes of hazardous chemicals used. In 2003, a North Carolina facility experienced a huge explosion and subsequent fire due to synthetic dust collecting on a hot ceiling vent shaft. This shows that controlling the thermal energy within manufacturing settings is a vital priority, and one which IS addresses within electrical devices and wiring.

4. Intrinsic Safety in Waste Recycling

Waste recycling facilities deal with materials of all kinds, plus a huge amount of dust and even gasses produced by materials biodegrading. As we already explored with food manufacturing, dust is a huge fire risk and, when contained, a cause of explosions. Dust burns extremely quickly and only takes the slightest spark to ignite. When dust burns, it can cause a fireball that rapidly changes the pressure in an area, inevitably causing an explosion. Workers using monitoring devices, meters, smartphones, computers, or even electrical-powered recycling machines are safer when the designers employ intrinsic safety to reduce the potential causes of ignition.

5. Intrinsic Safety in Water Filtration

There’s a misconception that industries focused on water should be inherently more fire-secure than those dealing mainly with solids or gasses. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In 2020, four people tragically died in an explosion at a water plant in the UK. Like many similar facilities, the Bristol water treatment plant included a silo of biosolids that were being treated for transformation into soil conditioners. A combination of chemicals and an ignition source thought to be from electrical devices used nearby caused the terrible explosion. No ignition risk assessment had been carried out, directly contributing to the deaths of these workers. It’s clear that introducing intrinsic safety to all areas of an industry could minimize incidents like this occurring in the future.

Innovations in intrinsic safety include exploring concepts such as intrinsic security — software that accompanies the hardware to protect the whole system from incursion via cyberattack. There are also devices like remote shutdown switches which can safely deactivate equipment from a distance should there be any doubts about the effectiveness of the intrinsic safety protocols in place. There are even intrinsically safe cases and adaptations for tablets and smartphones, to allow workers to stay connected without compromising safety.

If you’d like more information on intrinsic safety technologies for your industry, contact ICA and talk to a member of our team. Watch out for our next article, in which we’ll explore the many additional benefits of leveraging intrinsic safety methodologies.


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