Working safely with static

In this article Mike Brodie, Chemstore UK MD, outlines some of the risks associated with working with static and offers some best practice guidance.

What is static?

Static electricity is, simply put, electricity that is stuck in a system with nowhere to go. Within a typical electrical circuit, the charge is contained within a closed loop and returns to the source after carrying out a specific task, powering your kettle or lighting your office for example.

Static is different in that it can accumulate, often unnoticed, on plant, containers or even personnel. Due to lack of awareness or complacency in the workplace this build-up of energy can result in devastating, yet entirely avoidable accidents.

The accumulation of electrostatic charge is caused by barriers between the static charge and its path to ‘true earth’. For example, electrostatic charge on steel drums can be prevented from being dissipated by the presence of protective coatings, rust, debris build up and even surface layers of the stored product. Static build up on personnel can be a result of wearing the wrong footwear, or the use of insulating gloves when handling product.

Electrostatic sparking is caused by the rapid ionisation of the atmosphere between two objects at different electrical potential. When this voltage reaches a critical level, ionisation occurs in the form of a spark.

If the atmosphere across the spark is between its upper and lower flammable limits, ignition of the atmosphere will occur, resulting in fire or explosion.

The dangers of static

 

Hidenburg

 

Possibly the most famous example of a disastrous electrostatic discharge is the Hindenburg ‘Airship’ explosion. According to a team of experts recently assigned to conclude what caused the vessel to explode on 6th May, 1937, determined the most likely cause was a build-up of electrostatic energy transferred to the airship by passing through highly charged thunderstorm clouds. The problem came about during landing, as the ground crew reached for the tie down ropes, a path was created for the charge to spark to ground as contact with the earth was made. This, in turn, ignited the Hydrogen gas used to fill the ship, resulting in the explosion that killed 36 passengers that day.

Manoa Laboratory 2016

A more recent example of disastrous electrostatic discharge includes an explosion in 2016 within the Manoa Laboratory at the University of Hawaii. Investigators noted that: –

“…serious deficiencies in the institution’s approach to laboratory safety contributed to a lapse in proper risk assessment and lack of a culture of safety that ultimately led to the accident”.

University of Hawaii

A research fellow, visiting the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute biofuels research laboratory, was transferring a mix of flammable gases into a low pressure tank when the explosion occurred. The explosion seriously injured the lab technician, causing her to lose her arm. The University suffered an estimated $1,000,000 in damage to property and faces up to $115,500 in fines.

Initial investigations put the blame on an incorrectly specified pressure gauge that was not suitable for use with flammable gases, however further studies into the event placed the blame on static discharge within the tank.

University of Hawaii Source

 

 

 

 

Tank Before & After

Tank before photo provided by Jian Yu, after photo provided by the Honolulu Fire Department Source

It appears the explosion could have been avoided however by carrying out a more detailed risk assessment of the process. In fact, although the experiment had been carried out 10 or 11 times previously it was noted that the investigators discovered a number of ‘near misses’ that should have caused the process to be shut down and investigated further.

For example, a ‘cracking’ sound was reported during a similar experiment on another tank but the technician was advised to simply not use that equipment again. Equally of concern is that the technician had also reported receiving static shocks when touching the pressure vessel but was told not to worry about it.

Where is static likely to occur in the workplace?

It is always essential to consider static accumulation within workplace processes, but more so when these processes involve the creation of potentially explosive atmospheres. Such activities do not have to involve large quantities of flammables liquids or dusts. A few litres of flammable liquid, under the right circumstances can create the perfect conditions for an explosion throughout a workshop or laboratory. Common activities often include the collection of waste into larger drums/IBC’s for bulk disposal, or decanting of good product from larger drums into smaller containers for transfer into the workshop or laboratory.

During both processes a release of flammable vapour is often unavoidable. A static discharge at this time can easily result in a devastating explosion or fire.

Responsibility for these activities most likely rests with the operators, however due to the absence of a visible or tangible hazard, a lack of understanding or awareness can lead to complacency or honest mistakes and an electrostatic ignition.

As an example, a calculation can be made to show the energy of an electrostatic charge typically found on a metal drum containing liquid.

Example spark energy (joules) of a steel drum containing liquid = approx. 8.0 mJ

 

Liquid / Gas Minimum Ignition Energy
Methanol 0.14mJ
MEK 0.53mJ
Acetone 1.15mJ
Toluene 0.24mJ

It is clear to see that there is easily enough energy in commonly found activities to ignite a flammable atmosphere (within the explosive limits) of regularly used chemicals.

Legislation

There are many articles and best practice guides available in the market. In the UK, the DSEAR – Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations requires that a thorough risk assessment is carried out by a competent person.

“…Where a dangerous substance is or is liable to be present at the workplace, the employer shall make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to his employees which arise from that substance. … [including] … the likelihood that ignition sources, including electrostatic discharges, will be present and become active and effective”

Regulation 5 – Risk Assessment.

How Chemstore UK can help to solve the problem

Firstly, Chemstore can supply an on site assessment of your processes and facilities. If necessary, we can carry out a full DSEAR Risk Assessment for you to address any concerns you have regarding your process and to help put a plan in place for safe practices going forward.

This can then be re-enforced with operator and staff training and awareness courses to improve knowledge of the risks and associated hazards.

Chemstore’s Firevault and Safety Cabinet ranges can be supplied to ensure that all flammable liquids and gases are properly stored and that the environment for material transfer is made safe.

We can also offer a range of grounding equipment, depending on the application, to ensure operators have the right equipment to carry out the tasks on site.

Preferably, such equipment should not only monitor the presence of a connection to true earth (thus ensuring and static can safely drain away) but should also alert the operator if this state changes and the system becomes potentially dangerous.

The operator can then shut down the process until the issue can be rectified.

Static grounding requirements: What precautions should be taken when transferring flammable liquids from a metal container to a metal receiver?

When transferring liquids to/from 200L metal drums, for example – we would typically recommend using ‘pressure clamps’ capable of penetrating any surface barriers like rust, protective coatings usually present in such scenarios.

These clamps must be capable of achieving the (industrially accepted) contact resistance of 10 Ohms or less. Not only should they achieve this level of conductivity, but they should also be able to notify the operator that a good connection is ‘made’, or more importantly ‘not made’.

 

ClampsNewton Gale

Please enquire here for more information on this range of active products

Although ‘active’ systems clearly offer a preferred level of risk mitigation, sites may (after careful risk assessment) elect to implement a more passive system that does not have ground status monitoring or feedback capability. In this case it is essential to understand the limitations of such a system, to ensure that a good connection has indeed been made and continues to be made during the process. The use of certified and approved Factory Mutual or ATEX equipment is essential to achieve this – which Chemstore can supply on request.

 

Safety Data Sheets: Knowledge is Power!

Safety Data Sheets (SDS) are key to understanding/selecting the most appropriate containment device. In this article, Chemstore’s Stephen Mansell offers some advice on how to interpret Safety Data Sheets to help you specify the most appropriate containment equipment.

Identifying the substance and hazard

Section 1: of an SDS sheet is the identification of the substance. It provides the product name, product use, possible supplier details and manufacturer contact details. It should also contain emergency telephone numbers.

If you are unsure of anything with the product why not contact the manufacturer?

Section 2: covers the Hazard Identification.

Section 2.1 of the SDS sheet gives the classification of the substance or mixture.

Acetone as an example:

  • Classified as Flammable Liquid Category 2
  • Eye Irritant Category 2
  • Specific Target Organ Toxicity Single Exposure Category

2.2 Label element

Usually provided with the Global Harmonised System (GHS) pictograms and in the case of Acetone:

 

   

 

Signal words, hazard classes and hazard statements such as:

  • H225: Highly Flammable liquid and vapour
  • H319: Causes serious eye irritation
  • H336: May cause drowsiness or dizziness

Precautionary statements:

  • P210: Keep away from heat/sparks/open flames/hot surfaces – No smoking
  • P305+351+338: IF IN EYES: Rinse cautiously with water for several minutes. Remove contact lenses if present and easy to do – continue rinsing

Within the first two sections we have identified the following: –

The liquid itself is highly flammable as is the vapour, it can cause serious eye irritation and may cause drowsiness or dizziness.

It should be kept away from not just flames but also heat and if it does enter the eye this should be rinsed with water continuously.

I now need to find out further information for example the process that a business uses this liquid for. If we continue with acetone and suggest that Company X uses acetone on rags for cleaning metal parts (a widespread use of acetone due to its degreasing properties).  I would ask the following questions and provide theoretical answers: –

  • Q.What size containers do we stock? A. 205L as its cheaper than 25L.
  • Q.How many 205L drums do we have onsite? A. 32.
  • Q.Where are they stored? A. In a shipping container in the yard near boundary fence.
  • Q.How do we transfer the drums into the container? A. Lower using forklift and manually handle from pallet into position.
  • Q.Are we storing or decanting? A. Both. We decant inside the store into smaller containers.
  • Q.What are the smaller containers? A. Fire rated, Justrite plunger cans.

If the company purchases 205L drums, they are usually delivered on a pallet and are handled multiple times before placing them by hand in their final storage location. This provides multiple opportunities for a spill to occur from over-handling. If the product is delivered securely on a pallet why not keep it on the pallet?

Containment and Storage

Section 7: When selecting the appropriate secondary containment device, section 7 of a Safety data sheet is a suitable place to start. The SDS sheet section 7.1 provides details on safe handling. When using Acetone as an example, precautions for safe handling include:

  • Use in a well ventilated area
  • Avoid inhaling vapour
  • Avoid contact with eyes, skin and clothing
  • Keep container tightly closed when not in use

Section 7.2 Provides conditions for safe storage, including any incompatibilities

  • Storage should be cool, well ventilated away from sources of ignition or heat
  • Prevent accumulation of static charge (see our static article)

Using the Company X example,  Acetone was stored and decanted/dispensed inside the shipping container, a cheap option but this commonly DOES NOT provide: –

  1. Good ventilation
  2. Good thermal protection (the shipping container will dramatically increase in temperature in summer months)
  3. Any protection against static charge the during dispensing process. (see our static article)
  4. Any secondary containment in the event of a spill

Section 9: of the SDS sheet provides physical and chemical properties of the product. In our example case Acetone, we now know is flammable. There is potential in the shipping container for raised temperatures so in the first instance I would investigate the flash point.

A common misunderstanding in my experience occurs between flash point and auto ignition: –

  • Flash point: “The temperature at which a particular organic compound gives off sufficient vapour to ignite in air”
  • Autoignition: “The autoignition temperature or kindling point of a substance is the lowest temperature at which it spontaneously ignites in normal atmosphere without an external source of ignition, such as a flame or spark”

Taking Acetone again as an example the Flashpoint and Autoignition temperatures are shown below:

  • Flashpoint 18 °C (closed cup)
  • Auto Ignition 465 °C

This information provides us with the knowledge to understand the risks involved with company X’s processes onsite. Storing 205L drums in a shipping container, in the summer could easily reach 40 °C. The drums of acetone will produce sufficient vapour that could then be ignited. The shipping container had little to no ventilation which contributes to a build-up of vapour particularly during dispensing/decanting.

The container was also placed near a boundary fence which goes directly against HS(G)51 guidance:

Table 1 Minimum separation distances:

  • One solution to the storage of Acetone at Company X is to provide a Firevault (Fire Rated Store) product that will protect the Acetone in the event of a fire. The unit should either be well ventilated naturally, or provide forced extraction that removes any build up of vapour from the store and away from any external hazard. The fire rated store could also be temperature controlled to make sure the product is kept below the Flashpoint preventing any flammable vapour from being created (any electrical components are EX-rated appropriately). The distances are based on what is considered to be good practice and have been widely accepted by industry. Although these distances may not provide complete protection to people or structures from a fire in the flammable liquid storage area, they should allow time during a developing fire for people to evacuate to a place of safety. If these distances cannot be met then typically a Fire Rated storage solution would be required.

    During a recent site visit I witnessed flammables stored next to a boundary fence in open racking.

    On the particular day in question a maintenance company were patching up potholes on the road next to the boundary fence. In doing so they used a gas canister and what can only be described as a flame thrower!

    What would happen if the vapour/boundary vegetation ignited on that day?

    Do you know what processes take place outside of your boundary?

    Think about smoking areas/policy, vandalism, even acts of God, for example lightening?

    Why risk your business’s assets when all the information to protect it is at your fingertips?

    Contact us today for a free site assessment and our expert assistance.