'ATEX' is an abbreviation of the French - ATmosphere EXplosibles - or Explosive Atmospheres. It is a Directive from Europe to ensure that all Member States create appropriate legislation so that the risks to the health and safety of employees from an explosion caused by the work activity is reduced. It is implemented to ensure that all States have a 'Level Playing Field' and all are working to the same, or similar, level of risk.
However, it can also be seen that the risk of an explosion to persons is not 'European Union-specific'. Companies in other countries can have the same, or at least similar, risks. Hence why a better term for an ATEX risk assessment may be SAPIFE: a 'Structured Assessment for the Prevention of Industrial (flash) Fires and Explosions'- SAPIFE.
Using the term 'ATEX' acknowledges that the assessment is restricted to Europe. However, it should not be thought of that way, but as a structured method of assessing risks of a flash fire or explosion and whether they can affect persons.
Also, whilst ATEX considers safety of employees, it does not, directly or indirectly, consider the safety of non-employees - contractors, visitors, off-site persons, etc. Again, though, in some way or other, the risks of an explosion to a non-employee are as serious (if not more serious) than to an employee. Hence the assessments should really go beyond what the ATEX Directive originally intended.
It is worth noting that Member States can be prosecuted by the European Union for non-compliance with the ATEX Directive. Companies can be prosecuted by the Member States themselves for non-compliance with the local legislation.
ATEX is, in effect, a risk assessment, in that a hazard has to be present - usually the presence of a flammable atmosphere - and then the effect of the ignition of that flammable atmosphere is assessed as a part of the risk assessment-how likely, who could be hurt, how severely, what can be done to prevent it?
ATEX can be simply summed up in the following 'Three Rules of ATEX':
- Do not have a flammable atmosphere, but if you do..
- Do not ignite it, but if you do..
- Do not hurt anyone.
This is a hierarchical risk assessment and it should be ensured, in the first place, that a flammable atmosphere is prevented, as far as reasonably practicable.
If it cannot be prevented, then an assessment of ignition sources is undertaken. This usually entails a hazardous area classification and an ignition risk assessment (an electrical risk assessment and a 'non-electrical' risk assessment) is then prepared to reduce the risk to persons from ignition of the flammable atmosphere.
If, though, there still remains an 'unacceptable' risk, then 'protection of the people' becomes paramount and explosion protection should be considered.
The simplest explosion protection method is 'safety by position'. This means that if the plant does explode, no one is in the vicinity to be affected by the explosion. This is a business risk, but as explosions are not very frequent in all industries, the financial risk may be acceptable to some companies.
Other, more expensive, means of mitigating the effects of an explosion occur. However, the risk assessment should be able to determine which one or ones should be considered further on a 'reasonably practicable' basis.
This is where Sigma-HSE can assist. We can undertake risk assessments in a holistic way to cover employees and non-employees, European sites and non-European sites, and determine what reasonably practicable recommendations should be made for the company to consider, which would then reduce the level of risk to persons to one that is reasonable.