Understanding ATEX: Prevention of Explosions in the Workplace

ATEX is a European directive; it came into force in 2003 to ensure that companies that work with potentially explosive materials have adequate safety measures to prevent fire and explosion. Amazingly, industry analysts suggest that less than half of all companies that are required to abide by the ATEX directive even know what it is.

It is not just chemical or arms manufacturers either that should be aware of ATEX but also industries like food manufacturing as most powdered foods including custard, flour, sugar, coffee and dried milk all has the potential to cause explosions.

ATEX (137) recognises three zones for both dust and vapour explosions. For dust, zone 20 is the highest risk zone where an explosive cloud of dust could potentially ignite at any time, whilst zone 21 has less potential for explosions and zone 22 is the least likely. For vapours the zones are 0, 1 and 2 with zone 0 having the most potential for an explosion.

All companies that possibly have an area that is governed by a zone needs to be risk assessed and any equipment that falls short of the directive's requirement should be replaced.

Whilst most companies may be quite aware of the potential explosive nature of their environments (the material safety data sheet MSDS should have been issued with any potentially hazardous material) many companies are unaware of the standards equipment needs to face when operating in certain zones, particularly in the food industry where it is not uncommon for a lot of older equipment to still be in use.

Also, a lot of factories that have recently computerised their procedures or upgraded their IT may be unaware of the potential risks their PCs may cause.

Computers of course are full of circuit boards that can easily short (particularly in dusty areas where dust itself can settle between contacts) and create a spark and if there happens to be a cloud of dust suddenly evacuated from a particular machine or process at that time; then boom!

In environments identified as ATEX zones 0, 1, 20 and 21, then computers need to be replaced by intrinsically safe or air-purged systems, however even in environments where an explosion is not that likely, such as zone 2, a coincidental spark from a PC could end not just your production line but possibly somebody's life too.

These machines could of course be replaced too but many companies feel the expense for what is really only a slight risk is not justified, despite what the ATEX directive orders.

However, there are alternatives. Speciality industrial PC enclosures that can house computers, monitors, printers and all peripheries, are available that meet requirements of ATEX Zone 2.

Apart from being a lot cheaper than specifically designed systems, these computer enclosures have the add advantage of allowing you to keep you existing IT and replace it whenever you like whilst keeping the same enclosure.

ATEX has only been in force for the last 5 years (and only two for equipment in use before 2003) but it is only a matter of time before the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) cracks down and starts prosecuting companies for failing to adhere to the directive. Although a great big fine is probably preferable to your production line being blown apart due to faulty electrical equipment!

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