Meeting safety standards in hazardous environments

New regulations will require more attention to detail in telematics instruments.

E&P operators today face a complicated set of evolving standards, requirements and emerging technologies when it comes to effective operational procedures in hazardous environments. Geographically distributed field operations and joint corporate colocated operations create complex working environments. To address these challenges and optimize workflows, companies increasingly are leveraging communication technologies in the field to more efficiently manage their operations. However, along with the many benefits that new technologies deliver in the field come new regulations, most of which are being driven by international compliance standards.

More specifically, the rate of telematics adoption in modern industrial environments such as oil and gas E&P is pushing the pace for new standards intended to address safety from electronic and radio devices. The introduction of radio-frequency identification (RFID), cellular and satellite telemetry devices can help operations personnel know where and when field assets are in use or being moved.

For many field operations, dozens of companies may have assets at a single drillsite. In addition, many of these assets are leased for use in drilling operations. As a result, it becomes difficult to know exactly which asset is owned by one company but potentially operated by another company and tagged with yet another company’s telemetry device.

In response to the influx of new technologies in hazardous areas, the international safety standards bodies ATEX (Europe) and IECEx (international) have revised the standards of intrinsic safety of devices. And with the U.S. and Canadian standards scheduled to conform to the more stringent international standards in 2016, E&P companies need to educate themselves on the new regulations and prepare effective communication plans, policies and procedures around inserted technologies to close any compliance gaps.

Technology insertion

Telematics solutions are proliferating globally in every market sector, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to procure equipment that doesn’t contain radio components. Companies have fully adopted use of technology to improve operational efficiency, transparency and safety. What used to be managed by pad and pen is now managed by smart pads, Wi-Fi barcode scanners, RFID, satellite and cellular telemetry tags. Technology insertion is cost-justified by improved efficiency, lower labor costs (time) and faster asset transfer from site to site or company to company.

A typical land-based upstream operation will use dozens of companies providing various services. Most of the hard assets on the site are managed by a small group of companies, while those same assets are typically leased from a larger group of companies. To manage use-case billing and monitor multiple assets in motion, companies are increasingly leveraging GPS tracking and satellite-tagging their assets. While satellite tags may not provide onsite functionality, the site manager must still manage the safety and compliance aspects of having radio transmitters at the drillsite.

Evolving standards

In the U.S., intrinsic safety standards have been governed by National Electric Code as the leading certification for electrical device safety since 1997. Machine-to-machine telemetry was in its infancy then, and most of the telemetry tags developed with intrinsic safe operation requirements were certified under this fifth edition of UL913.

In 1997 intrinsic safe satellite telemetry in the oil field was nonexistent. Since then, RFID, satellite and cellular technologies have accelerated and have become common in logistics management of sparsely distributed assets in the energy sector.

Historically, the industry has been slow to adopt guidelines around these changing certification standards. And companies that operate exclusively or predominately in the continental U.S. may be unaware of the international standards that are impacting domestic certifications. They also may not realize that many of their leased assets that are provided by other companies with international deployments are already tagged with ATEX or IECEx-rated telemetry devices.

The current shift in standards is being driven in part by the proliferation of telemetry technology in the oil field. But now international acceptance of U.S. standards is a thing of the past, and new standards are driving new requirements for domestic and international operations. These new standards impose electrical and radio frequency power limitations that impact land mobile radio and radio telemetry devices currently approved in the U.S.

After July 2016, all manufactured products carrying Intrinsic Safe classifications (UL913) must adhere to the new seventh edition standard (UL60079). This new U.S. standard is harmonized to ATEX and IECEx, making it easier to achieve global acceptance for intrinsic safe telemetry devices based on a single standard for all.

The technical differences between the U.S. standards (fifth edition vs. seventh edition) are significant. The new requirements are more aligned to risk mitigation and use zone designations that correlate to hours of operation per year in hazardous conditions. The highest zone designation is Zone 0, which supports operation in excess of 1,000 hours per year in hazardous environments.

Separate from zone designation are equipment protection method and level. This is a change from the old method for marking devices. The equipment protection method describes how the device achieves a specific protection level. “Intrinsic Safety” is an approved protection method that certifies the electrical circuits are designed to limit heat and spark. “Flameproof” is a method that certifies that if the electrical circuits spark, catch fire or explode, the device enclosure will contain the event.

Both of these methods can be used to achieve the Zone 1 hazardous duty designation. However, “flameproof” is not an approved method for a Zone 0 service. Therefore, a device carrying the “flameproof” method can only operate less than 1.4 months per year in hazardous areas. Only devices certified for Zone 0 operation are certified for full-time use in hazardous environments.

Industry adoption of these new standards is mixed. International operators that previously accepted domestic fifth edition products now demand international ATEX/IECEx Zone 0 products—even for applications that do not require 100% hazardous location protections.

The complexity of the changes can be challenging to communicate to operational and field teams. In most cases it’s easier to designate the highest protection rating for any product fielded to avoid training field personnel about what devices can be used where. And because many companies don’t fully understand when and where their assets are moving or are being used in hazardous areas, they require all Zone 0 products to mitigate risk.

With an ever-changing global work environment, it’s difficult to know for sure that assets tagged for U.S. domestic operation will remain forever stateside. In addition, the complexity and expense of maintaining both domestic and internationally distributable assets is driving more companies to demand telemetry devices like the Geoforce GT1 that are compliant with the IECEx and ATEX international safety standards.

Be prepared

Safety certifications in oil and gas exploration are now being driven by international standards. The U.S. market is gradually adapting to conform to these new, more stringent regulations for intrinsically safe devices. Set to take effect in July 2016, the updated standards are impacting new procurement and processes in the oil and gas industry.

With many operators already demanding ATEX/IECEx Zone 0 certifications from their suppliers and service providers, companies should fully evaluate the impact of the evolving standards on their operations. By taking an informed approach to the new standards, companies can be strategic in how to simultaneously achieve compliance and leverage new technologies to maximize business performance.

About Geoforce

Combining a cloud-based software platform with ruggedized GPS tracking devices and global satellite and cellular networks, Geoforce’s Track and Trace solutions bring control to often chaotic field operations. With over 1,300 customers tracking more than 160,000 assets in over 90 countries, the company operates the world’s largest network of connected field equipment within the oil & gas industry, and its solutions are used in many other field operations intensive industries, including agriculture, construction, mining, transportation, logistics, rail, and government and defense. Headquartered in Dallas, Texas, Geoforce has R&D offices in Bozeman, Montana, sales and support offices in Houston, Texas, Denver, Colorado, Arroyo Grande, California, Macae, Brazil, Melbourne, Australia, and Calgary, Canada, and sales and service professionals in West Texas and South Louisiana. For more information, visit www.geoforce.com.