Democratizing Connectivity: The Future of Gas Detection

Sean Stinson, Contributor

From the canary in the coalmine to the clip-on personal gas monitor, gas detection has come a long way since its inception 200+ years ago. (photo courtesy Blackline Safety)

Connectivity has reshaped our world. From the smartphones in our pockets and networked smart homes to social media and wearables that track our wellbeing, connected devices have made instant awareness an expectation in both our personal and professional lives. Connectivity has disrupted retail, travel and banking and is now delivering on long-awaited promises in typically less-responsive, heavily regulated industries.

Gas detection is a mature market where the pace of innovation has been slow and lacked major reform—lagging behind other technology segments where connectivity is taken for granted. The landscape has changed in the last few years, where integrated connectivity has begun to transform modern gas detection, as well as the definition of what it means to keep industrial workforces safe, connected and productive.

This article examines the new era of gas detection that leverages instant connectivity; the industrial-internet-of-things (IIoT) with large sets of data that drive safety; and fact-based decision making. It offers real-world examples and insights on how connected gas detection can advance a company’s digital transformation and help an organization achieve operational excellence. But, before we examine where we are and where we can go, let’s start with a historic look at innovation in gas detection.

A Look Back at Gas Detection: from the Canary to the Clip-on Personal Gas Monitor

Gas detection has come a long way since its inception over 200 years ago.

In the mining industry, the earliest form of gas detection involved a designated worker who entered a coal mine with a wet blanket over his head and shoulders and a flaming wick to detect for gas. If methane or carbon monoxide were present, the flame would cause the gas to ignite, and the wet blanket would serve as the worker’s only form of protection.

Both the Davy and Geordie lamps were created in England in 1815 and became the first tool to help protect miners from flammable gas, such as methane and carbon monoxide. Though operating with different principles, The Davy and Geordie lamp provided a trustworthy indication to miners of the presence of flammable gases.

Dating back to 1911, John Scott Haldane introduced a second major innovation in the personal gas detection world to help protect miners from carbon monoxide with the use of so-called “sentinel species”—the proverbial canary in the coalmine. Canaries are very sensitive to carbon monoxide and other toxic gases and provided early warning for miners, giving them the time to evacuate the area. Industry went as far as creating resuscitation chambers to rescue birds that were in danger through gas exposure.

As technology advanced, so did gas detection methods and applications. The first modern gas detection device used a catalytic bead, or pellistor, sensor, to accurately detect the amount of gas present in an environment using two platinum wires, each encased in a ceramic bead and one coated with a catalyst. When placed into a Wheatstone Bridge and one bead is exposed to gas, a resistance change in the heated bead is measured and correlates to the gas concentration. Though the pellistor sensor still widely used today, this sensor now produces highly accurate readings for a target gas and is more or less sensitive to other types of combustible gas.

The introduction of portable gas detection systems defined the new era of gas detection we are familiar with today. Cody Slater, now Blackline Safety’s CEO and Chairman, pioneered innovations in portable gas detection under his first gas detection company, BW Technologies, when he created the world’s first wireless and solar-powered gas monitoring device: the Rig Rat area gas monitor. He also was a key driver of the mainstream emergence of affordable, sophisticated personal monitors and the notable introduction of the world’s first disposable monitor.

Democratizing Connectivity for a New Era of Gas Detection

Technology adoption for the purpose of protecting a workforce creates a more engaged, safer workplace across all levels and locations of a business. (photo courtesy Blackline Safety)

For the first time since the 1990s and early 2000s, we are experiencing a major revolution in the gas detection market—this time driven by connectivity. The integration of cellular and satellite communication into safety and gas monitoring solutions not only keeps workers safer than ever before, but also empowers companies to realize the full potential of their digital transformation.

While other forms of connectivity are available, including Wi-Fi and mesh networks, there are some limitations with these other options. Wi-Fi systems are expensive to install and maintain, plus they do not provide universal coverage. Unlike Wi-Fi, mesh networks are short-range, ad hoc networks that don’t require IT team oversight. Unless they’re tied into cloud services through a cellular or Wi-Fi gateway, they are isolated from the business. With operating range, they can also see interruptions where users or area monitors become unavailable due to workers moving out of range or an obstruction that blocks a signal.

Teams are now, more than ever before, able to make data-driven decisions that improve safety, agility and the overall performance of their company’s operations.

Businesses leveraging cloud-connected gas detection and data analytics technologies have instant and complete visibility of their workforce and worksites available at their fingertips. Leveraging data streamed from devices in the field through cellular or satellite channels to the cloud, teams can use online dashboards and interactive reports to see the real-time safety status of their workers, ascertain the compliance condition of their gas detection fleet, view employee behavior as a leading indicator and mitigate risks before they become dangerous. Going further, these technologies are being used to look at proactive safety in a new light—and to illustrate how information can be leveraged to increase efficiency and overall quality.

At a fundamental safety level, real-time collection and communication of data powers the shift from reactive to proactive safety—while opening the door to look at worksite optimization and programs that focus on quality and efficiency. For example, a business can use location-enabled data from personal gas monitors to analyze the how the geographic ratio of supervisors-to-workers has the chance to influence the behaviors of personnel.

Our early research on this topic has shown that how employees use their connected safety wearables correlates with how recent a supervisor has been seen in the area. While more research is required, it’s likely that mindful use of safety equipment will correlate with safe work practices and the potential for an improvement in near misses and incident rates.

This situational awareness, coupled with features such as two-way voice calling and messaging, increases the efficiency of a rescue in the event of an emergency. In addition to incident reduction, connected gas detection technology can improve workers’ confidence that their call for help will never go unanswered, allowing them to focus on the task at hand. Combined with mass notifications and location technology, personnel can be confident that it’s easy to initiate an evacuation of a site and account for everyone along the way.

Technology adoption for the purpose of protecting a workforce creates a more engaged, safer workplace across all levels and locations of a business.

Guiding Digital Transformation

Intrinsic to digital transformation is the use of technology to improve your business model, processes and culture at every level—including worker safety. An example of how leading connected gas detection can support a company’s digital transformation goals is DCP Midstream, a Fortune 500 company and one of the largest producers and processors of Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs) in the U.S.

By nature of its business, DCP relies heavily on technology and innovation to meet the ever-changing needs of their consumers. Its digital transformation initiative, DCP 2.0, aims to increase digitalization, automation and technology adoption by its 1,900 employees across nine states and over 66,000 miles of pipeline. The company leveraged cloud-connected devices for gas detection and lone worker monitoring, which enable workers and managers to more quickly identify and respond to emergency situations.

For example, the cloud-connected device alerted DCP employees to a carbon monoxide exposure due to a faulty heater at one location and two faulty exhausts on two company vehicles. The device has also immediately alerted operations and safety staff, who contacted emergency services and responded to an employee who was injured in a utility terrain vehicle collision.

These swift responses are possible because of DCP’s investment in emergency response drills, commitment to safety and use of cloud-connectivity. The company is seeing improvements as it decreased its total recordable injury rate by 56% from from 2016 to 2019.

Data-Driven Decision Making

In addition to driving safety, connected technology can also drive decision making to increase an organization’s agility. Data, with the proper visualization tools and reports, enables strategic and fact-based decisions that are proactive in informing safety procedures and flexible in response to emergency incidents.

For example, managers can use data collected by cloud-connected devices to study movement patterns and optimize workflow to better understand the relationship between incidents and workplace programs and procedures. This approach expands the role of traditional organizational charts, which don’t account for the ongoing deployment and movement of personnel. Having the ability to capture these movements and exposures provides the opportunity to be more agile in the development of both effective training and operating procedures.

Data also helps identify hot spots or gas exposure in areas it may not have been identified before. Not only does it help identify potential safety concerns, organizations can use data science to quickly trace the root cause of the problem and develop the correct solution.

Implementing cloud-connected technology helps companies become more agile in their decision making by leveraging more accurate and real-time data to address safety issues. Traditionally, companies have relied on employee reporting to identify a potentially dangerous situation. Due to the subjectivity of reporting processes, evaluating the validity, impact and cause of exposure is a manual process, especially over multiple locations. With connected gas detection programs, companies can identify employee exposures with certainty, as well as the duration of the exposure.

Scaling these insights across an entire workforce, managers can use this data to identify gas exposure hazards and calibrate its response accordingly. This real-time data allows managers to be agile and effective in making decisions surrounding workplace safety and procedures. In addition to increasing safety, this also greatly increases the response times in the event of an emergency with 24/7 monitoring services.

By seeing real-time data across a company’s network, safety professionals remain focused on eliminating hazards; improving engineering controls; standardizing workplace procedures; and continuing to build a culture that is focused on the safety of its employees.

Cloud-connected gas detection improves worker safety and efficiency and gives workers and managers the confidence and information they needed to get the job done. While connected gas detection is not the only component of digital transformation, it is a leading indicator of an industrial organization’s true commitment to safety and digital transformation. IHW

Sean Stinson is VP Sales and Product Management at Blackline Safety.