Tom Baldwin explains how intrinsically safe technology is paving the way for digital transformation in the mining sector.
In recent years, the push for digital transformation has seen more and more mobile devices being deployed at mining sites around the world. For many organisations, the benefits of going digital are now simply too big to ignore – ranging from improved workflows and asset management to faster, more accurate reporting. But perhaps most importantly, it helps pave the way for greater uptake of IoT technology, allowing organisations to capitalise on big data analytics and boost operational efficiency across the board.
Of course, the path to digital transformation isn’t always straightforward. Not least because a considerable number of mining operations weren’t originally constructed with digitisation in mind. What’s more, many active mines contain numerous restricted zones with dangerous explosive atmospheres, where a single stray spark from an electrical device has the potential to cause a catastrophic accident. Consequently, many of these areas remain ‘pen and paper only’, meaning routine tasks such as mine shaft inspections must still be conducted manually. However, as more organisations look to achieve true digital transformation, they must find a way to accommodate devices in such locations without jeopardising worker safety in any way. The question is, how?
No Two Explosive Atmospheres Are The Same
According to the UK’s Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR), an explosive atmosphere is defined as: “A mixture of dangerous substances with air, under atmospheric conditions, in the form of gases, vapours, mist or dust in which, after ignition has occurred, combustion spreads to the entire unburned mixture.”
In reality, no two explosive atmospheres are the same, meaning the level of device safety measures required will also differ from case to case. For instance, the above definition could be applied to a petrol station forecourt just as much as an industrial mining facility or gas wellhead, despite clear differences in the level of danger posed.
For this reason, organisations are required to closely assess all aspects of their facilities/operations and classify each area based on the true level of risk present. Within the EU, the classification system used is known as ATEX (short for Atmospheres Explosible), which combines two European Directives for controlling explosive atmospheres: Directive 99/92/EC (also known as ‘ATEX 137’ or the ‘ATEX Workplace Directive’) on minimum requirements for improving the health and safety protection of workers potentially at risk from explosive atmospheres; and Directive 94/9/EC (also known as ‘ATEX 95’ or ‘the ATEX Equipment Directive’) on the approximation of the laws of Members States concerning equipment and protective systems intended for use in potentially explosive atmospheres.
Under the ATEX system, zones containing gases/vapours are assigned a rating between 0 (in which an explosive mixture is continuously present or present for long periods) and 2 (in which an explosive mixture is not likely to occur in normal operation and if it occurs, will exist only for a short time). Similarly, zones containing combustible dust or fibres are rated between 20 and 22, based on the same criteria.
Each ATEX level contains corresponding guidelines on the safety measures that electronic equipment must incorporate to achieve certification for use in that zone. As expected, a device that’s certified for zone 0 requires much more stringent safety features than those required for use in zone 2.
Once assessment has been completed, organisations must ensure that only devices with the corresponding ATEX certification enter that zone, to ensure worker safety and achieve/maintain regulatory compliance.
Fortunately, mobile device technology as a whole has evolved considerably in terms of design, manufacturing and testing. As a result, industrial mining customers can now choose from a wide range of ATEX-certified, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions, which are both versatile and cost-efficient, as well as certified safe for ATEX zones 0/20, 1/21 and 2/22, depending on the chosen device.
Central to this is the advancement of intrinsically safe design and manufacturing processes. Features required for ATEX zone 2/22 certification, such as port protection, temperature control and double fault circuitry are now much more widely available on devices from rugged manufacturers, either as standard or as optional extras. This makes it much easier for organisations to meet the standards required.
What Are The Trade-Offs?
Of course, devices designed with safety first and foremost will always have to make trade-offs against pure consumer-orientated laptops and tablets, but these have diminished greatly in recent years. In the past, many ATEX certified devices were cumbersome and outdated right out of the box. Now, the biggest trade-offs tend to be a small weight penalty, slightly dimmer screen (due to lower energy output), and lack of interchangeable battery (due to the device being completely sealed). All of these are small prices to pay for significantly improved worker safety.
As the drive for digital transformation continues to gather pace across the industrial sector, digital devices are finding their way into all sorts of areas where previously there were none. This represents a positive step in terms of productivity and operational efficiency, but it also introduces a significant level of risk that must be addressed to ensure worker safety and regulatory compliance. The growth of ATEX-certified, intrinsically safe devices in recent years has taken much of the pain out of workflow and procurement processes, but with so many options now available, it’s absolutely critical that organisations carry out their due diligence before committing to a final purchasing decision.
Tom Baldwin is with Getac