A Week in the Life of a Portable Gas Monitor

It's rough on the front lines. If they listened to what these devices have to say, safety pros would learn a lot.

Monday, 7:32 a.m.

Here comes Pete. It looks like he'll be carrying me today. I'm the portable four-gas detector that Pete will use to monitor the air. I'll make sure he doesn't walk into a situation that puts him in danger of being caught in an explosion or being overcome by poisonous gases. It's a pretty important job. I'm in the business of saving lives, and I take it very seriously. If only everyone would treat me like what I do is that critical.

OUCH! Easy, big guy. You don't have to toss me down on the bench like that. It's not my fault that my battery is not charged. The guy that carried me last Friday was in such a hurry to go home. He just brought me back to the tool room and left me lying here without connecting me to my battery charger.

My new lithium-ion batteries are not like the old battery technologies that used to run my parents and grandparents. My battery charger is better, too. I can be left on charge continuously without being damaged at all. So I don't understand why they won't put me on my charger and just let me go to sleep there.

Oh, well, it looks like an easy day for me today while I get recharged. I hope Pete grabs another detector and doesn't try to work without one.

Tuesday, 11:14 a.m.

It's been another easy day so far. I've been up and ready to go since 6:30 this morning. That's when my daily bump test started. A bump test is essential to the start of a safe day—every day. When someone remembers to put me on my docking station at night before leaving, it automatically wakes me up and bump tests me first thing the next morning. That means that I am ready to roll when the day's work gets started. I really wish they would remember to do it every day.

The engineers that designed me have studied more than 30,000 gas monitors very similar to me. They have found that for every day that I am not bump tested, there is a 1 in 250 chance I will fail and not be able to respond to gas.

I'm actually feeling very confident today. I had my sensors changed last week. Rusty, one of the guys who don't treat me very well, dropped me from a ladder while he was climbing the side of a tank. I like to call him Rusty Roughneck. Something bad always happens when I work with him. I bounced off three rungs of the ladder and fell face down in the mud. My sensor membranes were clogged and my hydrogen sulfide sensor was broken.

They knew about it only because I couldn't sniff the gas when they bump tested me the next morning. That's the first test I've failed in months. But how was anyone going to know I was broken if they didn't check? As usual, Rusty didn't tell anyone what he did to me.

Wednesday 8:15 a.m.

Today, we are doing confined space entries, and I will be working with Sam. He usually takes pretty good care of me. He knows to verify that I am bump tested before he takes me out. After he turns me on, he always makes sure I am zeroed and clears my peaks.

They're going to clean the inside of a big tank today, and I'm going to sniff it out for Sam before anyone goes inside. This is a really big tank, and I will have to check it all the way down, almost 50 feet, to make sure it is safe. That's because some of the gases might be heavier than air and sink to the bottom of the tank.

Oh, no! Sam is getting out the rope. That means he forgot to bring my sampling pump. Now, he's going to lower me down into the tank and let me swing back and forth. I'll probably spin around 'til I get dizzy. I hate when this happens. He'd better be careful. I hope he doesn't let me slip down too far. I don't want to slosh around in all that liquid at the bottom of the tank.

Whew! I'm glad that's over. It worked out OK. The tank is all clear. It might not end up so well for the next sniffer, though. I'm done here for today, and we're off to check one more space before we call it a day.

Thursday, 9 a.m.

Today is the last day of the month, which means it's calibration day. Calibration day is the day we're all brought into the lab and the technician puts us on the docking station for our monthly tune-up. We get cleaned up, and the automatic calibration adjustment ensures we are performing and reading accurately.

At least once a month, it is important that we get a little deeper check-up than just our daily bump test. I was just calibrated last week when my sensors were replaced. But it's a good idea to do it again just to make sure I stay on a regular schedule.

It is also a good day to be calibrated because, after lunch, Clarence, the company industrial hygienist, is going to let me hang out in the plant in an area where some workers have been complaining about feeling sick in the afternoon. He'll come get me at the end of the day and then check the readings that I have stored in my memory to see if he can find out what, if anything, is making them sick.

I can store a lot of data in my memory and tell a lot of stories if anyone wants to take the time to listen to what I have to say. Last month, there was a day that I was carried into alarm four times. We were really lucky that day. One time, someone even turned me off when my alarm was sounding just because they didn't want to listen to me scream any more.

Anyone could see that these things happen if they took the time to look into my memory. But they almost never do unless there is an accident. They might even be able to fix the problem that is causing me to alarm before someone gets hurt.

Friday, 7:48 a.m.

I am bump tested this morning and ready to go work because I am spending the day with Pete again. He is taking me into the plant to do hot work. Oh, don't worry; it's not as bad as it sounds. But it can be dangerous. Pete will count on me to determine there is no combustible gas in areas where other workers are going to be cutting or welding. Once I say the air is clear, Pete will sign a hot-work permit, and the others will be able to light their torches or strike a welding arc.

Uh-oh, it looks like we are getting here a little late for this job. An overzealous contractor employee is already cutting that pipe. Yikes! There goes my alarm. We're starting to get close, and my combustible gas sensor reading is at 40 . . . 50 . . . 60 percent LEL and still climbing. Someone needs to shut that torch off and get everyone out of here quick!

It's four hours later now. All, including me, have had a chance to catch their breath and regain their composure amid the confusion. Pete is going to take me back inside just one last time to make sure the air is clear before the fire trucks go home and everyone goes back inside. If I hadn't been here today, it could have been a real catastrophe.

That's it. Everyone is safe now. Pete is going to take me back to the tool room and put me back on my docking station before he goes home for the night. I'll be able go to sleep and rest easy this weekend, knowing that I did my job. I saved a life today.

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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