A gas detector that is properly calibrated and maintained provides an accurate reading and results in reduced downtime. (RAE Systems photo)

Gas Detection's Critical Link to Safety: Maintenance And Training

A detector that is properly calibrated and maintained provides an accurate reading and results in smoother operation and reduced downtime.

In 2005, James Bobreski was removed from his job at the Washington, D.C., Water and Sewer Authority's Blue Plains sewage treatment plant after complaining that four gas sensors used to detect chlorine gas leaks did not work properly. The Washington Post reported that he subsequently filed suit with the Department of Labor and a federal judge ruled in Bobreski's favor, stating that officials who managed the plant were "defensive and argumentative" and took no responsibility for problems with the chlorine-detection system and other issues at the plant (Barker, 2005).

Maintaining gas detection equipment is serious business, as is training workers in using them. The importance of training and gas detection maintenance has heightened as demand for gas detection equipment has grown. Wherever hazardous levels of gas may be found, detection is becoming a crucial means of safeguarding communities and the workforce.

Failure to train workers to use, maintain, and calibrate gas detection equipment can have grave consequences for their personal safety. Maintenance and training for gas detectors--both portable and fixed--should be an intrinsic part of the safety program of any organization that uses them.

Training Dividends

As a first step, however, safety managers should select gas detection equipment meeting some basic criteria, such as:

1. The hazards within the workplace
2. Reliability
3. Ease of use
4. Available training and support

This means you will want to work with a manufacturer that offers training, whether at your facility or theirs. A structured gas detection training program enables technicians and supervisors to be trained in detector maintenance as well as in light repairs. A hands-on classroom environment is ideal--one where instructors understand your industry and needs, as well as the application of your specific detection equipment.

Another option is to have the equipment manufacturer customize a training program tailored to your needs and schedule. With customized training, subsequent cost and maintenance savings can be realized quickly because the training is focused on your specific organizational and plant-wide needs, as well as your operations' known risks.

In working with a manufacturer on integrating its training program with your overall safety training, look for programs that provide the right value for your organization. A basic-level class may be appropriate for a larger population of workers. Intermediate and advanced courses may then follow for a select few, including supervisors and safety, service, and equipment managers.

It's a best practice to encourage knowledge sharing regarding gas detection equipment maintenance and testing between a supervisor or group leader and his or her team members. This empowers your employees to take ownership of this facet of their safety and participate in it, and it builds enthusiasm among your technicians and workers and drives safety upward.

Maintenance and Accuracy
In addition to an organized approach to gas detection and instrumentation training, an awareness of instrument accuracy is important. Without proper or regular maintenance, detectors may easily fall out of calibration and produce inaccurate readings. This is dangerous; an inaccurate reading may lead to hazardous levels of toxic gas exposure or an oxygen-deficient atmosphere, causing workers harm, injury, illness, and possibly death.

An accurate gas detection instrument is one whose sensors are responsive to the gas it seeks to detect. The responsiveness of sensors varies with workplace environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity. Calibration is a means of ensuring the instrument reads accurately and aligned with a known standard. Calibration entails comparing the instrument's reading to a known traceable concentration of valid, unexpired test gas. This necessitates sensor calibration to be able to detect in environmental conditions that replicate or simulate actual workplace conditions. The calibration should be conducted on a regular basis as recommended by the equipment manufacturer.

It is crucial that employers keep calibration records for the life of each instrument. Doing so simplifies finding an instrument with a problematic maintenance or repair history, which may stand as a precursor to erratic readings, as well as to sensor tracking drift, helping to determine when replacement is in order.

The best way to verify that a gas detector's alarms for each installed sensor work adequately is to test it with a known concentration of gas, primarily to test low-level alarms. This is called a bump test. Detector owners may use a bump test and calibration station to conduct their own maintenance and ensure their devices are tuned and working adequately.

A bump test and calibration station is available from some manufacturers for their gas detectors. The detector is placed in a cradle on the station, which then performs either a bump test or a calibration of the instrument. The bump test provides a quick check of its overall functionality, while a calibration test may require minutes.

Pacific Ethanol: Reaping the Rewards
Industrial plant managers are proactively building training and maintenance programs for their facilities and are reaping the rewards. A Pacific Ethanol plant located in Boardman, Ore., on the Columbia River, uses a combination of fixed and portable gas detection equipment to detect explosive vapors, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and benzene and other VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which are present not only in confined spaces throughout the plant, but also whenever there is a line-breaking operation or equipment failure.

Under Plant Manager Lyndon Jones, the plant's safety program has taken a proactive role in maintaining gas detection equipment and in training technicians and other personnel in the equipment's operation, calibration, and repair. Pacific Ethanol also has achieved Oregon OSHA Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP) status, a recognition given to "an elite group of small businesses that maintain exemplary injury and illness prevention programs."1 Acceptance into SHARP is a public acknowledgment by Oregon OSHA that a model safety and health program exists at the work site and that safety is a company value. Pacific Ethanol is one of three U.S.-based ethanol plants that have achieved the SHARP status, and Jones said their selection of the gas detection equipment and the training, maintenance, and calibration plan they have developed to support it contributed greatly to their achieving it.

There is yet another benefit to a well-designed training and maintenance program: The very act of training users allows the workers to take true ownership and control of their gas detection equipment. This is a self-fulfilling reward for the workforce. Employees' participation adds to their overall morale and empowerment and creates a "safety first" environment they own. What they put into the program, they take out of it.

Critical Community Protection
In summary, gas detection is a growing safety concern at industrial facilities and for communities with risk of hazardous gas exposure. Properly trained workers and responders and well-maintained gas detection equipment are critical to the protection of workers, the community, and plant assets.

In order to ensure the fidelity of their equipment, safety managers and personnel need to develop smart programs to train all of their workers and stakeholders in the equipment's use. Gas detection safety objectives should include a program to train users, maintain and calibrate equipment, and record actions for accountability. A detector that is properly calibrated and maintained provides an accurate reading and results in smoother operation and reduced downtime.

Choose your detection equipment carefully, keeping in mind that training must follow its procurement. Create best practices for sharing information on gas detector maintenance and testing and build a safety-first environment that drives the safety climate to even higher goals.

1. https://www.osha.gov/dcsp/smallbusiness/sharp_benefits.html

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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