The Wonderful World of Gas Detection

Today's gas detection is not as prehistoric as it sometimes may seem to be. The technology of gas detection is improving, and there are new technologies that will bring new capabilities in the not-so-distant future.

I recently returned home from a brief family winter vacation to Orlando, Fla. The trip came on the heels of a meeting of the NFPA 350 committee working on a best practice guideline for confined space entry. After talking about little else but gas detection for three days, I couldn't help but wonder as I walked around the expansive Disney theme parks what gas detection would be like today if Mr. Walt Disney had spent his lifetime as the "Guardian of Gas Detection" and not the "Author of Animation."

Gas detection users face many daily pains. Gas monitoring instruments are difficult to maintain and are often considered to be difficult to use. Detection capabilities are limited by technology to the point that some prime targets are all but impossible to detect reliably, and true standards that govern the industry are non-existent or inconsistent at best. In Disney's world, everything was possible through imagination and technology. From Mickey Mouse to mermaids, to infinity and beyond, Disney enabled all things to appear real. I can only imagine how Disney would have eliminated the gas detection pains that the industry faces today.

The ability to detect gases reliably under all conditions, or even at all for some gases, is limited by the sensing technologies that are available today. Since I came into the industry in 1986, benzene has been considered to be the Holy Grail of gas detection. The one who finds the complete solution to detect benzene specifically and accurately at part-per-billion levels with a hand-held gas detector would surely hold the keys to the kingdom. Similarly, the ability to detect combustible gases with a sensing technology that does not require the presence of oxygen in order to work properly, is not susceptible to being poisoned by the environment in which it is used, and can detect all potential explosion hazards, including one of the most commonly encountered and most dangerous, hydrogen, escapes us.

To the average worker, gas detectors are intimidating. They are a lot like giving your grandmother a remote control for her TV in the '70s, a VCR in the '80s, or a cell phone in the '90s. Ask most any gas detection user about what he thinks about his gas monitor, and likely he will tell you he believes that it can protect them and potentially save his life, but he really wishes that he did not have to wear it or carry it at all.

He may even tell you that he doesn't really understand how to use it or even what it does. Now, we couple in the fact that the instrument needs to be bump tested on a daily basis and calibrated routinely, and just like Grandma, they think they might be better off without it.


Why Don't LELs Agree?
The world is a very large place when it comes to gas detection. The differences in related standards, whether they are exposure standards, use standards, or standards of physical properties of the gases themselves, sometimes seem to be spread as far as the east is from the west. For example, the lower explosive limits (LEL) of methane and propane are accepted in North America to be 5 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively, while the accepted LEL levels of these gases throughout Europe are 4.4 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively.

How can these gases possibly be more explosive in Europe than they are in the United States or Canada? How can an instrument that is tested and certified for use in an underground coal mine in the United States not be acceptable or permitted to be used in a mine in South Africa or Australia? Why is the permissible exposure limit for carbon monoxide set at 50 ppm by the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration but only set at 25 ppm in the state of California and 30 ppm in the United Kingdom or Australia? I am quite certain that whether I am in Pittsburgh, Pa., Sacramento, Calif., or Melbourne, Australia, and I am exposed to carbon monoxide, it will affect me exactly the same way.

Seeing the Future
In Disney's world of gas detection, gas hazards would never be hidden from us. We would simply put on our 3-D glasses, and any hazard that lurked in the atmosphere would immediately appear. We would be able to identify exactly what gas it is and know the concentration in the blink of an eye. We would be able to see exactly where the gas came from and know how to safely eliminate it.

All concerns about ease of use would be gone. There would be nothing to maintaining a gas detector, other than taking out a tissue and wiping away the smears. If he wished long and hard enough, they would probably even be self-cleaning.

Disney's kingdom would be unified. One size and one set of standards would fit everyone, everywhere, and death and injury due to gas hazards would be eliminated from the workplace and the world.

But as much as we don't live in the Magic Kingdom's "Fantasyland," we aren't the Flintstones, either. Today's gas detection is not as prehistoric as it sometimes may seem to be. The technology of gas detection is improving, and there are new technologies that will bring new capabilities in the not-so-distant future. Wireless technology for capturing data is emerging quickly, allowing us to learn more about the environments that we work in every day.

We can't drink from the sacred cup just yet, but advances in low power infrared, carbon nanotube, and solid polymer sensing technologies are getting us ever closer to that day. Maintenance concerns are not gone, but full gas detection solutions like our iNet -- Gas Detection as a Service program allow companies that use gas detection to focus on their core business needs and place the pains of managing a gas monitoring program on gas detection experts.

No, we haven't eliminated death in the workplace due to gas accidents just yet, but if we continue to dream and imagine hard enough, our wish will come true. And when it does, we will find out that it is indeed a small world after all.

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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