It was a dreary fall afternoon that I spent walking around my neighborhood as a young boy, collecting donations to send flowers to the funeral of a retired neighbor man who had passed away earlier that day. I approached a particular home, rang the bell, and as the door was opened, explained my mission.

I was puzzled by the questioning voice at the door, “Why did he die?” she asked.

After returning home with the collections, I was still perplexed by the question and reiterated it to my mom. Why did he die? There was no explanation that answered the mystery or relieved the burden that the question placed on my mind.

Detecting the dangers
Portable gas monitoring instruments have been developed, manufactured and sold into the industrial marketplace with a single purpose: eradicating death in the workplace due to gas accidents and eliminating the question, “Why did he die?” Single and multi-gas monitors exist only to provide an early warning to those hazards that are capable of snuffing out life in an instant. The lack of life-giving oxygen, the presence of explosive gases and the occurrence of poisonous vapors in the atmosphere are the mysterious dangers that these units are designed to detect and warn against. Yet the mysteries surrounding the monitors themselves and the way they are used still remain.

Far-reaching advances
Why are portable gas monitoring instruments generally considered to be difficult to use and understand?

They certainly are not.

Through the years, instrument designs have focused on increased simplicity. They have evolved from having switches, dials, analog displays and adjustment screws to operating with one or two buttons and having color, graphic-capable displays that convey information in multiple languages. Many require nothing more than turning them on and reading the display. Old-time instruments with hand aspirator bulbs have been replaced by units with on-board electric pumps to draw remote samples.

What could be simpler than that?

Detection capabilities have expanded tremendously over the years. Early portable gas monitors were capable of detecting one or maybe two gases. They were typically limited to measuring oxygen and methane. Capability to detect toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide came into play a few years later.

Today a host of additional toxic gases can be monitored from chlorine to phosgene, and the addition of the photoionization detector (PID) has made the detection possibilities almost endless. What was once a crude methanometer is now multi-gas extravaganza that can detect up to six gases or more and protect workers from a multitude of hazards.

Life-saving information
Portable gas monitors require regular calibration and routine bump testing with gas. In the “old” days, these functions were cumbersome and often required that the instrument was partially disassembled to achieve that task. The mysteries of what lay inside the instrument case could be understood only by a trained technician.

Today, the same functions are automated. Docking Stations have been developed to automatically perform the functions of calibration and bump testing, guaranteeing that they are performed correctly and at the required intervals.

Many features have been added to portable gas monitors, all aimed at providing information useful in saving lives.

Although it is sometimes hidden, datalogging, for example, is now built into almost every instrument. The ability to review gas exposure data from previous events can provide a historical perspective on exposures to hazards that can be used to prevent accidents in the future. Graphic displays that provide real-time information on trending of hazards as opposed to what might be considered a meaningless number can be used as an earlier warning that potentially deadly dangers exists.

Why are detection tools neglected?
The real mystery of portable gas detection is this: With all of the tools that exist to provide clear warnings of dangerous conditions and deadly hazards, why do workers still die in gas accidents?

Why do workers remove a manhole cover and climb down a ladder into a confined space that has been depleted of all breathable oxygen, while the gas monitor that they have been provided with rests on the dashboard of the truck?

Why does a worker carry a gas monitor that screams of danger into an area and neglect to evacuate it until he is removed on a stretcher?

Why is a worker found with his combustible gas monitor in the case and turned off following a deadly explosion?

It certainly is a mystery to me.

Why did he die? I would have never imagined that nearly 40 years after hearing it for the first time that I would still be haunted professionally by that same question. We can design and build the absolute best gas detection instrument and systems possible. If the tools, with the features that we provide in them, are not used properly, we will keep searching to solve the mystery. Those of us who work in the safety industry have dedicated our careers to eliminating that question and ensuring that mothers and fathers return home safely to their families each night. Preserving human life is our life’s work.

©2008 Industrial Scientific Corporation