Protecting lives and the environment in hazardous areas

Safety is defined in the Collins dictionary as the state of being safe from harm or danger. Safety can also refer to the control of recognized hazards in order to achieve an acceptable level of risk, i.e. risk management. That applies everywhere, for everyone, at home, in the workplace, indoors and outdoors. Then why are there so many incidents, accidents and disasters that could have been prevented, had the necessary measures been observed and enforced?

A 3D rendering of the blast in the port of Beirut.
3D rendering of the explosion that devastated much of Beirut's port on 4 August 2020.

The Mauritius oil spill

Two recent examples show that not all is well in the world of safety. In July of this year a tanker ran aground off the southeast coast of Mauritius. The latest in a long series of oil spills that have damaged ocean life and the shores of many countries. The spill may not be the largest in history, but, according to NBC News, “its location – an environmentally protected ecosystem of biodiverse reefs, endangered animals and plants, mangrove forests and turquoise lagoons – means it has already caused untold damage that experts say could take decades to reverse.” The spill is bound to have a serious economic impact on the country that relies heavily on tourism. Not to mention the local fishermen deprived of their livelihood.

Beirut explosion

On 4 August a series of explosions in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, ravaged the city, killing at least 200 people, injuring around 5 000 others and leaving about 300 000 without homes. Allegedly, a fire, started by welding work on the warehouse structure, triggered the explosion.

What caused the explosion? Lebanon’s Prime Minister blamed the detonation on 2 750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored since 2013 at a warehouse in the port. Ammonium nitrate is a chemical compound predominantly used in agriculture as a fertilizer, but also as a component of explosive mixtures used in mining, quarrying and civil construction.

The ammonium nitrate was stored – unsafely, it seems – first on the ship that transported it, then in a port warehouse, for about seven years. A disaster waiting to happen.

Both the Mauritius oil spill and the Beirut explosion are proof that when dealing with potentially inflammable and/or explosive material, the utmost safety measures must be taken to protect the environment and the lives of those living close by.

UNECE: Risk prevention in explosive atmospheres

This is why the United Nations, through UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe) has endorsed IECEx, the IEC System for Certification to Standards Relating to Equipment for Use in Explosive Atmospheres, as the international certification system for the assessment of conformity in Ex areas.

The UNECE Working Party on Regulatory Cooperation and Standardization Policies (WP.6) worked in close cooperation with IEC and IECEx to develop a model for legislation in the sector of equipment used in environments with an explosive (Ex) atmosphere. The model was adopted by the WP.6 in November 2010. The text is contained in this publication. It provides for adequate risk mitigation, without creating excessive costs or red tape for business. Any member state that has no regulatory framework in the explosive equipment sector can use the model as a blueprint for legislation. If countries already have such a framework, they could consider gradually converging towards this international model. Once the model has been adopted as national legislation, the sector will operate under a single common regulatory framework in all participating countries.

IECEx helps ensure highest level of safety

UNECE has drawn on IECEx experience to build its model. Since 1996, IECEx has been the only truly international conformity assessment system that provides testing and certification for all items of Ex equipment – electrical and non-electrical – and installations as well as certifying the skills and competence of individuals working in hazardous areas.

The System addresses the inspection (location and other), installation, maintenance and repair of equipment and systems and assesses the competence of personnel working in this highly specialized area.

IECEx provides:

  • a robust and credible system for the operation of standardized certification schemes
  • a dedicated IECEx website
  • on-line certificates in real time
  • a forum for the industry and stakeholders to have a voice in the running of the IECEx Schemes

IECEx has the mechanisms in place to help industry, authorities and regulators ensure that electrical and non-electrical equipment as well as the people working in Ex locations benefit from the highest level or safety.

For more information on IECEx: