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Conor Twomey, Director of Research and Development - Gas Detection Solutions at Scott Safety, looks at the past, present and future of gas detection and sensor technology, from the caged canary to portable monitors that fit in the palm of your hand.

Gas detection technology is essential in a number of industries to help protect workers from the risks associated with exposure to harmful levels of invisible and odourless flammable or toxic gases when carrying out their duties. Gas detection equipment has come a long way since the early, unsophisticated offerings, which included sending caged canaries – and even humans – into potentially toxic atmospheres to test gas levels.

The industry has made real progress in both its understanding of workplace safety and in developing a range of sophisticated sensor technologies designed to detect almost any harmful gas that workers might be exposed to. Once accepted as an inevitable occupational hazard, fatalities and injuries relating to dangerous build ups of gas have now been drastically reduced and are a source of continued technological investment.

HISTORIC PROGRESS The Industrial Revolution created demand for fuel and many of the first gas detection attempts were developed for the coal mining industry, a notorious source of combustible and toxic gases. From the early 1900s miners relied on the caged canary as their only early warning system. The canary, normally a songful bird, would stop singing and eventually die in the presence of toxic gases, signalling to the miners to down tools and exit quickly.

A small advancement came with the flame light detector which featured a flame encapsulated in a glass shell to prevent ignition in the atmosphere. Graduating marks were made on the glass to help calculate the presence of combustible air or the absence of oxygen. If the flame dropped too low, this indicated an oxygen-deficient environment and if it rose to the top the atmosphere contained methane or was oxygen-rich.

In 1972, Lord Alfred Robens, former Chair of the National Coal Board, led an enquiry into workplace health and safety and his central recommendations were implemented in the passing of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. In June 1974, a huge gas explosion at the Nypro plant near Scunthorpe shocked the nation and galvanised support for the new Act. Twenty-eight people lost their lives and 36 others suffered serious injuries as a result of cyclohexane gas escaping from the site.

In 2013/14 gas detection incidents remain high, with 203 recorded in relation to the supply and use of flammable gas, including 6 fatalities. Key industries affected by gas in the workplace can be seen on Table 1.

SMARTER SENSORS Soon after gas detection became a part of the mining industry, other industries followed. The first gas monitor, introduced to industry


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