Investing in PID: Protecting Workers Now and for the Future

Investing in PID: Protecting Workers Now and for the Future

Photoionization detectors (PIDs) are gas detection technology that can help businesses address this risk from the start, maintaining the highest level of short- and long-term safety for workers.

Implementing an effective safety program means keeping employees safe today and tomorrow. Industrial workers face a number of obvious challenges that pose immediate risks to their safety. However, many workers are also exposed to a less apparent danger: low level gas exposure that occurs on a regular basis and can cause significant long-term health effects. Photoionization detectors (PIDs) are gas detection technology that can help businesses address this risk from the start, maintaining the highest level of short- and long-term safety for workers.

VOCs and Long-Term Health Impacts

Low level gas exposure occurs often from volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are gases emitted from certain liquids or solids that have low boiling points and evaporate or sublimate at ambient temperature, which can have both short- and long-term impacts on workers’ health. VOCs are emitted by common products that can be found at any worksite, office and even at home.

Examples of products that emit VOCs include cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, correction fluids, solvents and vapors associated with fuels like gasoline, diesel, kerosene and jet fuel. That ‘new car smell’ comes from the off-gassing of such chemicals with a new vehicle purchase, and many would be toxic with long-term, continued exposure. Common VOCs that businesses monitor for include benzene, formaldehyde, methylene chloride and trichloroethylene. While these gases do not pose an immediate danger to personal safety in short-term low concentrations, they do have long-term health implications that can be detrimental to workers, adding up over time.

Health impacts from long-term exposure to VOCs can range from low-level aliments such as eye, nose and throat irritation to serious illness such as damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system and may even cause certain cancers. The impact VOCs have on worker health is dependent on an individual’s level and length of exposure. In response to these health effects, regulatory agencies have implemented limits on exposure to these gases. For example, OSHA set permissible exposure limits (PELs) to protect workers from harmful, long-term health effects by implementing maximum concentrations of a chemical that workers can be exposed to.

What is a PID Sensor?

PID sensors are specialized gas detectors that use high-energy ultraviolet light to ionize gases into negatively charged electrons and positively charged components. They measure VOC levels specifically by monitoring the current flow between electrodes inside of the sensor.

PID sensors are designed to address cumulative low-level VOC exposures, and they play an instrumental role in safeguarding employees from adverse health risks. A traditional approach to PID usage is to arm safety professionals with data collected with a subset of personnel and use this information to extrapolate for the larger workforce. This data helps to make well-informed, strategic decisions about operations and safety procedure.

In the current age of connect safety technology, affordable PID technology can be deployed with larger groups within the workforce. As part of a comprehensive gas detection program with cloud-hosted analytics, PID technology can be a game-changing asset that leverages data science to keep workers safe and streamline regulatory compliance. It represents a comprehensive approach to safety that takes into account real-world cumulative exposures that may impact workers’ long-term health. It goes beyond protecting against the immediate, daily safety risks to preserve the continued wellbeing of workers throughout their careers.

Data Driving Safety

Due to advancements in technology and data science, safety professionals no longer have to rely on single surrogate testing methods to identify potentially harmful, low-level gas exposure. PID technology is more accessible and now provides full and accurate visibility into when and where VOCs occur on a large scale—potentially missed by periodic tests used to extrapolate for larger populations. Implementing modern, cloud-connected PID sensors means that sensor data is continuously gathered from an entire workforce, or a strong proportion that provides a similar level of real-time coverage. By combining large amounts of residual PID readings recorded across many different devices, and by identifying when and where they occurred, issues such as process faults or leaks can be automatically detected. These leak and process fault algorithms can automatically pinpoint possible locations in which residual readings are detected and eventually lead to identifying the correct action to reduce risk.

Visual and interactive data is a catalyst for mangers to further understand where VOCs occur to make educated decisions about business operations to limit the duration of exposure for workers. For example, simple adjustments to worker scheduling or protective equipment in response to data analytics can greatly reduce a worker’s risk of long-term health effects. This data is gathered and available within a matter of hours, compared to previous methods that took months or longer before safety professionals were able to identify a problem and develop a solution. This greatly reduces the amount of time between discovery of an issue and the development and implementation of a well-informed solution.

Streamlined Compliance

Ensuring that appropriate regulatory requirements are met should be a priority for all businesses, no matter the industry. In the industrial sector, regulatory requirements are incredibly important in protecting workers on the job and throughout their careers. PID technology makes meeting and maintaining accurate PEL compliance easy with cloud-connected technology.

All gas detection and compliance data are automatically uploaded from connected gas monitors and easily accessed for a live view of an entire team’s compliance status. By using location technology, the location of every gas reading provides context, making it easy for safety professionals to understand what areas of a site present more exposure risk to workers. Next, it’s easy to review data for each worker exposed to different levels of VOCs as well as the duration of the exposure. From there, they can even deduce who else might have been exposed within the area, regardless of whether they were wearing PID sensors.

Historically, PID sensors have been expensive for companies to deploy across a large workforce, as every device used to cost several thousand dollars. However, as technology advances and companies across industry continue to prioritize workplace safety, businesses are adding affordable PID sensors into their safety programs. Doing so is an investment in connected technology that pays dividends through economies of scale.

As more workers are equipped with PID monitoring, businesses are seeing enhancements in safety, reductions in time spent on compliance reporting and overall increases in productivity. In addition to these benefits, implementing cutting edge safety technology is an important part of remaining a competitive employer as the industry continues to prioritize comprehensive worker safety and wellbeing.

Side Bar/Call Out – VOC Detection: Increasing Efficiency and Confidence  

The Old Way: Extrapolating and Generalizing Data. Traditionally, VOC detection is a manual, time-consuming process. Companies often equip an individual with a PID sensor to collect VOC exposure data in order to estimate employee risk as they perform their duties. This process can vary as each company is monitoring for different types of toxins, chemical and gas exposure as well throughout different environments. Data gathered from this process must be interpreted and extrapolated to model the VOC exposures of a larger population. A general procedure for VOC detection includes the following steps:

1. Schedule the next data collection interval or ad hoc monitoring if someone shows signs of VOC exposure 

2. Identify all of the places that the individual may have been 

3. Develop a test plan to check all of the identified locations 

4. Isolate exposures to specific locations and/or processes 

5. Develop an effective remediation 

The New Way: Automatic VOC Detection and Streaming Data 

Automatic VOC detection and cloud-connected PID sensors enable streaming of data for immediate awareness of employee exposures and cumulative exposures over time. When coupled with location technology and deployed to an entire workforce, or even a subset, connected PID sensors supply safety and health professionals with centralized data for reporting within a matter of hours. This takes VOC detection from the theoretical world of modelling overall employee exposures from a few surrogate data collection sessions, into the actual world of true, per-employee exposures. Armed with data at their fingertips, safety and health professionals can take the guess work out of VOC detection to be more efficient and confident than ever that workers are safe in both the short- and long-term. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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