Science park safety

Simon Hopwood explores explores gas safety in science park environments

Gas safety is a topic that is rising up the agenda. Already a key priority area for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), it is widely expected that regulations in relation to gas safety will come under increasing – and stricter – focus in the future, particularly with increased attention on new and future fuels, such as hydrogen, driving awareness of the topic.

In science park and innovation centre settings, gas safety is a crucial part of overall safety, but it can be a complex issue to address. The hybrid nature of such spaces means that gas safety can be more complex compared to a setting where one company owns or occupies an entire building. Additionally, the wide range of gases that can be involved in science and tech research and development can require more specialist knowledge in order to ensure detection and monitoring coverage is fit for purpose.

Add to these complexities the fact that many organisations working in science park settings are small start-ups, with limited resources and in-house specialists when it comes to operational areas such as gas safety.

It is understandable that many organisations approach the topic of gas safety, at least initially, reliant, in part, on their existing knowledge of the topic. However, much of the commonly known facts about gas safety are inaccurate.

A good example is H2S (hydrogen sulphide). Because of its well-known ‘rotten eggs’ smell, many think that a leak or build up would be obvious. This is not the case. Above a certain concentration, H2S damages the nasal receptors, making safe detection without proper monitoring technology impossible. Specific training on gas safety – particularly the gases relevant to your setting or facility – is usually an invaluable way of helping to correct these types of misconceptions. 

Another key issue to be aware of is that different types of monitoring and detection devices are needed for different settings and applications. For example, a common mistake (or ‘work around’) is for portable personal gas monitoring devices to be used instead of a permanent point detector. Portable monitors are battery powered, which introduces an opportunity for human error if they are not sufficiently charged and they are therefore unsuitable for constant monitoring requirements. Additionally, their alarms are designed to be heard or seen when worn about the person, so are not sufficiently loud to warn someone on the other side of a room, or other large space. Most importantly they cannot warn an operative when an area is safe to enter (outside of that space) without having to enter the hazardous area in the first place. 

Using fixed permanent gas detection removes the opportunity for human error, or risk taking in situations where, for example, a portable device may have run out of charge but due to operational or production pressures, the temptation might be to enter an area of risk anyway, on the assumption that its only for a short time. There have been cases of this happening where CO2 has been present (a largely odourless and colourless gas) and fatalities have occurred as a result.

A gas detection device should be easy to use and provide sophisticated functionality. This is particularly important when connecting it to other devices and control systems for management-level summary data and reporting.

In addition, people sometimes take matters into their own hands. For example, a university R&D facility in which liquid nitrogen was being used to store biological samples. The team knew there was a danger presented by the gas being released, but – astonishingly – were relying solely on how they felt whilst in the room and relying on propping the door open for ventilation. Clearly the work around was not only inadequate, but very dangerous. The solution to this was a very simple and cost-effective Oxygen monitor connected to an alarm inside the room and a traffic light outside. The room was later fitted with a ventilation fan that was also controlled by the gas detection system.

As well as assuring safety of workers, a system where ventilation is controlled by the gas detection system, can also bring commercial benefits. Rather than ventilation fans running permanently, they can be turned on when required, based on the condition of the atmosphere being reported by the gas detection system. 

Whilst the example above provides a fairly obvious case for the need for good gas safety, some gas safety requirements are less obvious, or even hidden. For example, it’s not uncommon for portable or bottled gas to be stored in cabinets or cupboards in science park and innovation centre settings, and these confined and unventilated locations are often high risk – particularly in large or complex sites.

With speculation around the increasing use of shared workspaces post-Covid, and particularly in settings such as science parks and innovation centres, knowing every space is crucial.

The mixed and varied use of these spaces means that any individual business’ approach to gas safety is inextricably linked to the safety of other users and building tenants. 

In such settings, smaller systems for different tenants’ individual lab (or other) spaces which can link up to a wider monitoring and detection network is ideal. 

Crucially, science park and innovation centre managers play a crucial role in ensuring building-wide safety and a joined-up approach and making gas safety as easy to understand and as automated as possible, much like fire safety.

It is clear that gas safety is a high priority for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and it’s likely that regulations will become stricter in the future, particularly with increased environmental consciousness and lesser known fuels, such as hydrogen, driving awareness of the topic. 

it’s therefore essential – above all else – to build flexibility into gas safety planning in science park settings in particular, ensuring that any providers you work with have the capability to offer a wide range of gas detection technologies.

As in many fields, it’s a case of not necessarily opting for what appears to be the most cost effective solution on day one but planning for future expansion.

Simon Hopwood is with Draeger Safety UK

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