Freezing weather and high levels of hydrogen sulphide make the remote Kashagan oil field, in the Kazakh zone of the Caspian Sea, one of the most hazardous environments on Earth. It’s one of many facilities around the world where companies have started to deploy IECEx certified robots.
Workers cannot go outdoors without protective clothing and breathing apparatus, which hampers productivity without removing all the risk for humans. A much better solution sees humans stay behind in distant control rooms, while robots perform the most hazardous tasks.
Robots are widely used in ‘Ex’ environments in a variety of other industries, such as automotive and food. Industrial robots are used in assembly lines, in materials handling, loading and unloading of machines, palletizing, arc welding and painting.
Spray painting was one of the first uses for industrial robots. Because close contact with solvent-based paint is a serious health hazard for workers, employing robots to perform the tasks greatly minimizes risks to humans.
Manufacturers have designed and produced painting robots that are impervious to paint shop conditions and present no hazard when in proximity to flammable compounds or explosive atmospheres.
The robots are sealed, “explosion-proof” units, often pressurized to prevent the ingress of explosive solvents, as stipulated in the relevant International Standards. IEC Technical Committee (TC) 31 prepares and maintains international standards relating to equipment for use where there is a hazard due to the possible presence of explosive atmospheres of gases, vapours, mists or combustible dusts.
Safety in hazardous environments is non-negotiable. When equipment is not installed, maintained, inspected or repaired by competent persons and according to strict Ex standards, the outcome can be devastating.
While robots may take the place of humans to perform highly dangerous tasks, the human factor has still to be taken into consideration. Even with remote control, a human is still needed to operate the equipment, whether it is a simple painting robot or a highly sophisticated ROV (remotely operated vehicles).
This is why it is essential for all equipment used in Ex areas to be designed and manufactured according to very specific requirements.IECEx (IEC System for Certification to Standards relating to Equipment for use in Explosive Atmospheres) provides certification for areas where there is a risk of fire and/or explosions due to flammable gases, liquids and dusts (Ex areas).
Ex areas are a part of almost every industry, from transport, food production, and textiles to petroleum and mining. IECEx not only covers the broad spectrum of devices, systems and services used in explosive environments, but also verifies their conformity to International Standards.
The System addresses inspection (location and other), installation, maintenance and repair of electrical and non-electrical equipment and systems, and assesses the competence of personnel working in this highly specialized area.
IECEx has been endorsed by the United Nations via the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) as the global best practice model for verifying conformity to International Standards in explosive areas.