Leveraging Connectivity in Area Monitoring for Full Worksite Visibility

Leveraging Connectivity in Area Monitoring for Full Worksite Visibility

Area monitors are the latest safety technology to join the cloud-connected digital transformation.  

Connectivity is pervasive across our personal and professional lives, and it is now an expectation of industries to maintain instant connectivity. While the safety industry has traditionally been slower to adopt new technology than consumers, we’ve seen this trend take hold across safety programs in personal gas monitors, lone worker devices and other technology designed to make sure workers arrive home safe each day. Area monitors are one of the remaining technologies that have yet to incorporate instant cloud connectivity.  

The majority of industrial worksites face the threat of gas exposure, which can endanger the lives of workers and compromise the project at hand. Area gas monitors help by continuously evaluating the safety of jobsite environments to safeguard against gas exposure that could become deadly. Strong, reliable connectivity supports ubiquitous and dependable communication between area gas monitors and employee-worn gas monitors that continuously move throughout the facility and site. Additionally, connectivity provides the gateway to relay data in real-time to cloud-hosted software for storage, organization and reporting. These innovative functions enhance safety across worksites to make certain that all workers arrive home safe at the end of each day.  

What is Area Monitoring?  

Area monitors are temporary or semi-permanent gas detection units that are designed to monitor hazardous gases across an entire worksite, providing additional point of monitoring that complement employee-worn gas detectors. These devices are portable and protect workers by providing a perimeter of safety for a number of scenarios, including tank farms, fence lines, oil spills, confined spaces and facility shutdowns or turnarounds. Unlike traditional wearable gas monitors, area monitors are not classified as personal protection equipment (PPE). Rather, they crucially expand the concept of employee protection to an entire facility or site. 

The primary purpose of deploying an area monitor on a worksite is to alert workers to unsafe levels of hazardous gas—before employee exposure occurs—by sounding a local alarm, triggering other area monitors to go into alarm and by notifying their personal gas monitors. In contrast, personal monitors continuously monitor an employee’s breathing zone for potential gas exposure. Personal gas detectors have proven their value at keeping workers safe, but area monitors expand that protection through advanced notice.

The Area Monitoring Landscape  

While conventional area monitors have played an important role in worksite gas detection, they also have key limitations that diminish their potential to keep workers safe. For example, area monitors are traditionally supported by star or mesh networks, with mesh networks being presented as the keystone of sophistication. Both approaches pose a couple problems for large worksites and workforces: first, there are limitations on the number of connected devices and service range; second, there are limitations on “network hops” and message transmission. Some Wi-Fi solutions are also available, but these impose additional burdens. Key topics here include provisioning and passwords, sufficient coverage and the typic complexity of add-on Wi-Fi gateways that are one more device on the mesh network.  

Area monitors using mesh networks only have capacity for a preset number of connected area, and personal gas monitors and are limited by serviceable range—limiting their capability for large sites. Some systems are limited to as few as eight devices per network, prohibiting key communication between the number of deployed area monitors, not to mention the workers who continuously move throughout the jobsite. If a worker enters the area and her or his device has not been added to the network yet, what happens during a gas exposure? The same is true for workers who may be out of range of the area monitor. To cover the key areas of a facility or site, several networks may need to be deployed and maintained by personnel. 

One critical limitation of mesh networks is the number of possible “network hops.” By design, mesh networks route data packets throughout the network to ensure that each device shares a common understanding of the overall site status. Every data packet is communicated from one device to the next, to the next and the next. The unfortunate problem is that, for practical networking reasons, there’s a limit to the number of “hops” that a data packet is allowed. Each data message cannot be allowed to hop through the network indefinitely. Plus, what happens to the network if one area monitor is moved that was acting as a relay, connecting two groups of other devices? The network is broken into two pieces that no longer communicate, and alerts may be lost, regardless to the number of allowable hops.  

To put this in context, consider this: if an area monitor generates an alert, that alert will hop from the first area monitor through the mesh network. Putting aside the device limit, range limits and the fact that mesh networks may unexpectedly become fragmented, the important question is what happens when the alert reaches its hop limit? It is deleted. Some mesh networks support as few as three hops with others support up to eight hops, but the result is the same when the limit is reached. In this digital age, for technology design limitation to cause uncertainty and potentially leave workers completely unaware of a potentially deadly situation.  

The Power of Full Visibility  

Cloud-connected area gas monitors that utilize high-speed, high-capacity cellular networks will set a new standard for how health and safety professionals monitor their environments for unsafe levels of gas. The availability of cellular and satellite wireless networks delivers true global coverage so that companies never have to worry about the above limitations. This gives health and safety professionals the confidence of knowing that all workers will be notified of hazards regardless of how many workers are onsite and where they are in the area.  

Integrated as part of a comprehensive cloud-connected safety program, area monitors complete the overall picture of the workforce and worksite together—at the enterprise level. Cloud-driven automation enables area monitors to stream gas readings and alerts to the cloud automatically, where this data can trigger real-time emergency responses and evacuations by monitoring personnel. Health and safety professionals and company leaders are able to use collected data to make informed decisions to keep workers safe, schedule proactive maintenance and look at how to optimize workflows for peak efficiency. Developing solutions for potential issues before they become a problem boosts overall worksite safety, quality and efficiency. A holistic, all-inclusive approach to safety promotes a more engaged, safer workforce across all locations.  

Alleviating Pain Points  

In addition to enhanced reliability and visibility, the new age of cloud-connected area monitors can also alleviate more practical pain points associated with everyday use.  

Conventional area monitors are notorious for burdensome deployment, setup and maintenance. Setting up and managing radio networks can present an unexpected challenge for many businesses. Plus, due to limits to range and the allowable number of devices on a network, multiple networks may need to be deployed. Next, traditional monitors feature notoriously short battery life and require a battery change from every day to about once per week at the outset. After this time, workers must go visit every area monitor to replace the battery, ensure that everything is operational and take the empty battery back for charging. This arduous process causes an interruption in area monitoring and requires a considerable amount of human effort and diligence to ensure that every monitor continues to function.  

A direct connection to the cloud via cellular or satellite connectivity makes deploying area monitors incredibly easy and streamlined. When powered on, these devices can seamlessly connect to cloud-hosted infrastructure. The don’t rely on wireless connectivity between nearby devices since every monitor connects directly to the cloud. These devices mean no more range limits between devices, limits to the number of devices on the network and no maximum number of network hops. Every gas reading and alert streams directly to the cloud where there’s a complete picture of every team member and area monitor deployed throughout the worksite.  

Routing of gas readings between devices will be intelligently handled through geographic zones, or geofences. Every single area monitor and personal gas detector will receive every alert that occurs within the same zone. This hassle-free setup eliminates the complexities and downtime that businesses have accepted until now, which in turn increases safety and productivity.  

Area monitors should be just as “plugged in” and “connected” as every other piece of technology that we take for granted in our personal lives—from smartphones and fitness monitors to smart TVs, social media and home networks. The industry continues to make technological advancements, and area monitoring is joining this connected reality.  

Call Out Box: Looking to the Future  

As connectivity continues transform workplace safety, it unlocks great potential for innovation. When this concept is applied to cloud-connected area monitors and coupled with location technology, further advances become possible to notify workers based on worksite zones or geofences. Health and safety professionals can draw geographic zones in cloud-hosted software to segment the worksite into different areas. Because they use GPS and affordable location beacon signals, wearable detectors and area monitors are mapped within their corresponding zone and automatically receive any alert for that zone. This dynamic routing of alerts is intuitive and comprehensive, never leaving an employee unaware of a dangerous gas exposure.  

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

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