Infrared Technology Proactively Manages Facility Safety Risks
Facilities operate advanced machinery and complex systems using substantial amounts of electricity.
- By Bret Bevis
- Oct 01, 2021
As businesses constantly look for ways to increase safety and reliability, it is critical to proactively identify, prioritize and control risks associated with your facility’s electrical assets. Electrical failure is a leading cause of fires and injuries in all types of facilities. The U.S. Fire Administration reported that in 2017, more than 8,200 fires occurred from electrical malfunctions totaling $431 million in losses. This article examines the use of infrared technology to detect electrical, mechanical and safety issues to minimize risks, avoid excessive costs, maximize facility productivity and help to provide a safe workplace.
Infrared inspections are a proven preventive technology in data centers (where maintaining 99.99 percent uptime is critical), manufacturing, food processing, pharmaceuticals, the hospitality industry (especially important as occupancy rates increase), retail and any other industry using electrical assets.
Facilities operate advanced machinery and complex systems using substantial amounts of electricity. In manufacturing facilities, complex robotics and machinery as well as electrical systems such as compressors and control sensors are essential to maintain efficient production. In the hospitality industry, mechanical systems such as elevators and HVAC equipment run 24/7.
In any facility, electrical systems and components include, but are not limited to:
- Power distribution
- Transfer switches
- Distribution panels/sub panels
- Mechanical/motors and drives/bearings/belts/anything as directed
Virtually any electrical asset, from switchgear to a breaker, can experience issues from wear and tear, manufacturer defects or improper installation and maintenance. According to Aberdeen Research, 82 percent of manufacturers have experienced unplanned equipment downtime in the past three years. The cost reaches as much as $260,00 per hour.
More importantly, electrical asset problems can cause employees to suffer painful, disfiguring burns, arc flash exposures, serious injuries and fatalities. Electrocutions are one of the “Fatal Four,” the leading causes of workplace deaths cited by OSHA. Fatal Four incidents were responsible for almost 60 percent of worker deaths in 2018.
Electrical inspections on average find problems in five to 10 percent of assets. This includes generating excess heat due to a poor connection, a fault within a circuit or the environment in which the asset is located. For example, dust particles can enter the inner workings of electrical assets and, if left undiscovered, can create risks that inevitably become problems leading to employee injuries or fatalities.
Heat is one immediate indicator of an electrical asset that is experiencing problems. Thermal anomalies exist in about five to eight percent of all equipment on average, and none of these problems get better on their own. Infrared inspections are a proactive method for identifying and resolving these hazards and others before they turn into life-threatening, costly problems. Electrical problems in assets are not easily detectable. The risk is usually in a component contained within a cabinet or otherwise is not visible. Infrared inspections are the universally accepted method of exposing and identifying electrical issues.
Infrared Inspection Benefits
A properly conducted infrared inspection is a comprehensive electrical asset predictive maintenance management tool—not just the practice of looking for hot spots on the largest equipment. Infrared inspections:
- Reduce risk of fire
- Increase safety
- Reduce energy consumption
- Detect problems quickly without interrupting operations
- Increase reliability and availability of critical systems
- Minimize maintenance and troubleshooting time
- Avoid excess costs
- Maximize productivity
- Avoid insurance spikes and workers’ compensation claims
- Reduce asset downtime and repair/replacement costs
All it takes is one incident in your facility—personnel-related or equipment-related—to bring operations to a halt and leave your organization with hefty fines and potentially serious injuries and fatalities.
Not All Inspections are Equal
It’s important to note that not all infrared inspections are created equal. Reporting, recommendations and support from different inspection providers will differ greatly. In a typical inspection, an inspector comes to your facility and conducts the infrared inspection to identify problems with your electrical assets. Once the inspection is completed, the inspector prepares a report listing the findings. These may be organized by asset, problem, severity, location etc., or the report may just list the problems identified. Recommendations should be made for electrical problems identified—repair, replacement, upgrading, etc. Non-thermal safety issues should also be reported.
Many typical infrared inspections lack depth and the information required to provide real risk management. The inspector may not understand if one problem is more critical to your facility operation than another. It is left to you to compare the full list of assets inspected and prioritize recommendations based on how your facility operates. Without complete and comprehensive information, you cannot drill down to find patterns and cannot analyze the overall asset status.
Infrared inspections can be made more valuable from the time the examiner enters your facility. To start, all inspected assets can be inventoried with QR codes applied. Baseline data and images can be entered into software, creating a centralized, comprehensive and accessible database that can be filtered by equipment classification/type, equipment size/capacity, manufacturer name, model number if available, rated amps/capacity, voltage, equipment priority and equipment location by room.
Infrared inspections simply use an infrared device (camera) to scan exposed, energized electrical assets to determine if a problem exists. An image of the problem should be included in the report, but this imagery can be difficult to understand or use to identify the exact problem. More advanced, in-depth services can provide comprehensive data management and reporting systems.
This type of infrared inspection goes beyond just looking for hot spots in the largest equipment. By providing complete information, users get a high-level view of all problems and assets inspected and can drill down by problem type and severity, asset type, asset priority, location and more. Taking into consideration the problem component type, rating, load and ambient temperature, sophisticated calculations can be used to confirm problem severity from minor issues to the most critical. Problems can then be forecasted at different loads to help identify risk and prioritize repair.
In addition, visual inspections by trained, certified technicians identify non-thermal problems of facility assets by looking for NEC and OSHA compliance issues. These issues include missing covers or knockouts, exposed wires, foreign materials inside electrical equipment and other life-safety issues that can cause injury, failures and fines.
A full and complete infrared program will greatly contribute to a risk management program.
When considering an electrical infrared inspection, costs and benefits should also be considered. Standard infrared inspections may give you results and recommendations, but no information on energy savings or other return on investment data. Software is available that provides extensive cost-benefit analyses and forecasts of potential energy repair cost, production and materials loss savings.
Your facility’s electrical safety and code and regulatory compliance result from inspecting, seeing what was inspected, identifying problems, making and documenting repairs and mitigating risk. Innovative technology today makes this possible. The goal is not to simply know that there are electrical problems in your facility. The goal is to keep your people safe, maintain efficient operations, and save money in the process. Best-in-class infrared inspection services deliver on these expanded benefits. As stated at the beginning of this article, it is critical to start now to proactively identify, prioritize and control risks associated with your facility’s electrical assets.
This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.