Health and environment at risk

Chemical plant fire highlights necessity of drastic safety measures in Ex areas, as advocated by IECEx

By Claire Marchand

The incident at the Lubrizol chemical plant in Rouen, France, is a powerful reminder that the most drastic safety measures are a must in explosive (Ex) environments.

Experts investigate fire Experts have begun their investigations into what caused the fire (Photo: AFP)

Dark cloud over Rouen

On 26 September 2019, a fire broke at a storage facility owned by Lubrizol, a company that manufactures industrial lubricants and fuel additives. The blaze raged for 24 hours, sending black smoke all over the city and the surrounding countryside. While there were no casualties, a variety of symptoms – nausea, dizziness, respiratory difficulties – were reported by city inhabitants and firefighters. For a number of days after the incident, the French authorities banned the harvesting of crops and sale of all produce of animal origin from the region as a precaution while tests were initiated. Dairy farmers were forced to dump tens of thousands of litres of milk.

The incident also had dire consequences for some other companies located in that specific industrial zone. Three were shut down while experts conduct investigations on site to try and determine the origin and cause of the fire. The premises are covered in dusts and ashes that are still a potential risk in this context. In addition, people living close by had to leave their apartments and be relocated.

While the company has already agreed to compensate farmers and shop owners for their losses, there are still a number of issues that need answers: what caused the fire, where it exactly originated, what consequences chemical emanations may have on the health of the population and the city and its surroundings in the mid- to long-term.

Zero risk doesn’t exist

Even if the authorities at the state or regional levels have strict regulations in place for industries that operate in explosive atmospheres, zero risk doesn’t exist.

Ex environments – or hazardous locations – are places where fire or explosion hazards may exist due to flammable gases or vapours, flammable liquids, combustible dusts, or easily ignitable fibres or flyings present in the air in quantities sufficient to produce explosive or ignitable mixtures.

The oil and gas, mining, chemical and petrochemical sectors are obvious candidates that come to mind. Their operations are in hazardous areas and their workers are exposed 24/7 to the risks inherent to such locations. 

But then there are many other industry sectors that are either intermittently exposed to explosive atmospheres or that have very specific and confined areas that can be classified as hazardous locations. Food processing plants, sugar refineries, gas stations, grain handling and storage, automotive manufacturing and repair, pharmaceuticals, furniture manufacturing, to name a few, have their share of incidents involving hazardous materials such as dusts, mists or vapours. In reality, most industry sectors may have at least one area that qualifies as a hazardous location (storing gas canisters, powders, etc.). They utilize flammable substances in quantities that may result in concentrations that are potentially explosive, whether during normal operation or due to abnormal situations arising.

IEC solution for the Ex sector

The risks are widespread. Anyone working in the following areas should be aware of the inherent working risks:

  • Manufacturers or sellers of equipment for use in Ex areas
  • Anyone working in oil and gas, chemicals, petrochemicals or pharmaceuticals
  • Anyone supplying, specifying, buying or using Ex equipment in the engineering, procurement and construction sector
  • Anyone installing, inspecting or repairing Ex equipment

The safety and security of staff, community, environment and equipment is of the utmost importance.

Through its standardization and conformity assessment work, IEC has a solution for all sectors of industry that are operating in hazardous environments. The Commission has been at the forefront of Ex standardization for many years, preparing international standards and establishing IECEx, one of the four IEC Conformity Assessment (CA) Systems that provides testing and certification for all types of Ex equipment and related services, as well as personnel competence.

Specific requirements for explosive atmospheres

IEC Technical Committee 31: Equipment for explosive atmospheres, and its subcommittees have series of international standards, IEC 60079, ISO/IEC 80079 (including ISO 80079-36 and ISO 80079-37), that cover all specific requirements for Ex electrical and non-electrical (mechanical) equipment and systems, from general requirements to protection levels for apparatus used by all sectors that operate in hazardous environments

To make sure that the equipment they purchase meets the very strict requirements specified in the series of international standards, as well as those put in place by national or regional regulations and legislation, the Ex industry can rely on IECEx, the IEC System for Certification to Standards Relating to Equipment for Use in Explosive Atmospheres for testing and certification.

An IECEx certificate provides clear proof of compliance with international standards, an important assurance for anyone responsible for the safety of those working in such areas.

High level of safety for Ex workforce

To cover all safety aspects in Ex environments and to complement the IECEx certified equipment scheme, IECEx has developed the IECEx certification of personnel competence scheme for assessing and certifying individuals working in potentially hazardous areas.

The IECEx certificate of personnel competence (CoPC) provides independent proof that the certificate holder has the required qualifications and experience for working on electrical equipment located in hazardous areas and can implement IEC International Standards covering explosive atmospheres.

For the CoPC, competence is defined as "the ability to apply knowledge" rather than simply assessing knowledge. In this sense, the assessment of persons includes assessing their ability to perform certain Ex-related tasks.

Together, standardization work by IEC TC 31 and IECEx certification provide a global comprehensive solution to address many of the risks found in Ex environments. Their work is ongoing, as new risks arise and as new solutions are found.

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Experts investigate fire Experts have begun their investigations into what caused the fire (Photo: AFP)