Keeping spills and explosions at bay

IECEx-certified equipment is one sure way to mitigate risks in Ex areas

Every year sees its share of oil spills, gas leaks or industrial explosions that could have dire consequences for human beings as well as for the environment. They can be caused by the wrong or faulty equipment, poor maintenance and/or by poor operating procedures or mistakes.

oil & gas pipelines
Leaks in oil and gas pipelines can contaminate soils for years

These incidents are often associated with certain so-called explosive (Ex) environments, such as the oil and gas or chemical industries, mines, and many others that don’t necessarily come to mind as Ex locations: chemical plants, food processing facilities, sugar refineries, grain silos, and others.

In the past…

The explosion that destroyed the North Sea Piper Alpha oil and gas offshore platform in July 1988 resulted in the death of 167 workers and damage in excess of USD 1 500 million at the time.

The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 killed 11 workers, caused major environmental damage that required a huge clean-up operation costing billions of dollars.

Thousands have also died in explosion-related mining accidents across the world over the years, the worst recent one killed over 300 miners in Soma, Turkey, in 2014.

All ends well at times

Fortunately not all incidents end in such a disastrous way. Especially in the oil and gas sector, the production process is complex, from drilling, refining and storing to transporting. Spills can happen when a pipeline breaks, when storage tanks leak or when a simple piece of equipment is defective.

This happened in 2015, when a malfunctioning valve at a Prospect Energy oil processing facility released 6 500 gallons (more than 24 600 litres) of crude oil on the ground in Colorado. The spill was rapidly contained, using barriers of compacted soil to limit the spread. Clean-up involved using backhoes to collect the contaminated soil that was then taken to a certified waste disposal site. The US Environmental Agency (EPA) later confirmed that the incident had no short- or long-term consequences on the environment, thanks to the rapid intervention of Prospect Energy staff and the local authorities.

Ex-proof equipment

Factories and plants operating in hazardous areas can rely on equipment – in particular electrical equipment – that is designed to contain explosions within the device and that doesn’t produce sparks with enough energy to trigger an explosion.

Designed and built for Ex areas

All pieces of equipment and devices used in explosive (Ex) atmospheres, whether large or small, electrical or non-electrical, have to be designed and built in compliance with the very strict requirements set out in standards and specifications, most notably in the IEC 60079 or ISO/IEC 80079 series of International Standards developed by IEC Technical Committee (TC) 31: Equipment for explosive atmospheres, and its Subcommittee (SC) 31M: Non-electrical equipment and protective systems for explosive atmospheres.

Testing and certification are a must

Designing and building devices operating in Ex areas in compliance with IEC International Standards is not enough on its own. To ensure that any piece of equipment meets the required criteria, it also has to be tested and certified. Products associated with a certificate of conformity satisfy the criteria for safe usage in hazardous environments.

To make sure that the equipment purchased meets the very strict requirements specified in IEC 60079 and ISO/IEC 80079, 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.

IECEx is the only truly international Conformity Assessment (CA) System that provides testing and certification for all Ex equipment and installations.

Repairing, not replacing

Because Ex equipment has a much higher capital cost than the same equipment used elsewhere, repairing it is often more cost-effective than replacing it. And again the IEC, through TC 31, has developed an International Standard, IEC 60079-19, which gives instructions, principally of a technical nature, on the repair, overhaul, reclamation and modification of equipment designed for use in explosive atmospheres. This ensures that unique Ex safety features are not compromised during the repair or overhaul process. The system includes on-site audits prior to issuing the IECEx certificate and periodic audit reports.

The IECEx Certified Service Facilities Scheme also covers other Ex related services including installation and inspection of Ex equipment and installations.

High level of safety for Ex workforce

Ensuring that all equipment is designed, built or repaired in compliance with IEC International Standards is essential but may not be sufficient. What if those operating the equipment do not possess the very specific qualifications required to work in Ex environments?

To cover all safety aspects in Ex environments and to complement the 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 CoPC (Certificate of Personnel Competence) 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.

Increased level of security

Manufacturers who rely on IECEx for the testing and certifying of their equipment, who have their staff go through the steps necessary to obtain a certificate of personnel competence, have that additional level of security that makes a real difference. They know that they operate in the best possible conditions and minimize the risks inherent to Ex sector. 

More information: