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Working safely in flammable atmospheres

There are many risks involved when it comes to working in confined spaces. According to the Health and Safety Authority, most of these dangers revolve around the inhospitable atmosphere those performing tasks in such environments are forced to contend with.

The most common atmospheres you need to be prepared for are toxic, oxygen-deficient or oxygen-enriched, explosive or flammable atmospheres.

All possess unique hazards that you must identify, assess and determine how to manage before you may commence work in them.

One of the most dangerous environments those working in confined spaces can be faced with is a flammable atmosphere. This is exactly what it says on the tin – an atmosphere that’s at risk of igniting and causing a fire or some type of explosion.

The Health and Safety Authority explains that such an atmosphere might arise when flammable liquids, gases or combustible dust are present in confined spaces.

As part of your risk assessment of the working environment, you should keep an eye out for these substances and potential sources of ignition, so you can take the necessary steps to prevent them from harming your or your co-workers.

Some potential sources of ignition are electrical equipment, “hot-work activities” (e.g. welding), exhaust pipes and even static electricity.

According to Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, flammable atmospheres are considered hazardous if and when “the concentration of flammable gas, vapour, mist, or fumes exceeds five per cent of the lower explosive limit (LEL) for the substance”.

The LEL is the smallest amount of gas mixed with air that will cause a fire or explosion to occur.

You can determine whether environment you’re working in is hazardous or not by conducting atmosphere testing. This must always be undertaken if you’re unsure about the concentration of flammable substances in the air. Safe Work Australia explains this should be carried out by a “competent person” using “correctly calibrated” gas detector.

It’s important to remember that your own senses are not astute enough to determine whether the atmosphere in your working environment is safe or not. Safe Work Australia warns that many flammable substances are undetectable by smell or sight alone.

How do I keep safe in flammable atmospheres?

Once you’ve conducted a risk assessment and discovered the presence of flammable substances and potential sources of ignition, you need to decide how best to manage them.

As always, your first step must be to eliminate the flammable substances and/or potential sources of ignition. Where possible, remove these from the confined space or spaces in which you’re working and introduce administrative controls to prevent workers from performing tasks in these areas that might cause the atmosphere to ignite.

Next, do everything you can to lessen the chance of any remaining flammable substances and potential sources of ignition causing a fire or explosion.

For example, suggests Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, make sure any electrical equipment you’re using is properly earthed, regularly maintained and “suitably rated” – that is, designed to be flame-proof or “intrinsically safe”.

It’s important to check with the manufacturer of electrical equipment what “zone” of flammable atmosphere it’s able to be used in safely. The “zone” you’re working in – in other words, how hazardous/flammable the atmosphere is – should be determined as part of your risk assessment.

Zone 0 is the most hazardous or most likely to result in a fire or explosion, while Zone 2 is the least hazardous. That means using electrical equipment designed for Zone 2 in a Zone 0 confined space could potentially lead to an accident – even though the equipment is supposedly flame-proof.

Want to know more?

If you want to learn more about performing tasks in flammable atmospheres, you may want to consider enrolling in aConfined Space Training course. This will provide you with an overview of the risks associated with working in confined spaces and help you to prevent accidents from occurring.

In addition to covering flammable atmospheres, the Confined Space Training course delves into toxic and oxygen-deficient atmospheres, as well as configuration and other hazards you may come across working in confined spaces. You will also leave with a sound understanding of the Entry Permit System and a range of safety procedures, such as atmosphere testing, purging, ventilation and personal or respiratory protective equipment.

The Confined Space Training course may help you to save your own or a co-workers life sometime in the future – so, what are you waiting for? Get in touch with AlertForce today and get prepared.

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