Overcoming Common Safety Issues With the Installation of Industrial Insulation

January 1, 2016

There are several concerns industrial insulation contractors must consider when installing products in hazardous power plant environments, including the plant’s heat output, the probability of fly ash and acid gas, the implications of tight operating proximity, and many other issues that are unique to specific types of plants and installations. To combat these potentially dangerous situations for insulation installers,contractors must take the necessary precautions, including undergoing a rigorous pre-planning process, conducting a job safety analysis (JSA), mandating in-depth employee education, and providing employees with all of the required personal protective equipment (PPE). While power plant environments can prove to be quite precarious, there are no issues that cannot be overcome with proper regulatory practices and installation techniques.

Depending on the type of plant in which insulation is being installed, contractors face a number of different issues that require special precautions to ensure safe and correct installation. These precautions are determined based on environmental factors within the plant as well as standard pre-planning and safety procedures set in place by both the contractor and the manager of the power plant in which the insulation is being installed.

Pre-planning and Safety Precautions

The purpose of a pre-planning process is to evaluate each job on a case-by-case basis to determine the safest possible way to complete the project. Most contractors conduct a JSA during which they examine the job site and make a list of each environmental factor that could potentially result in a hazardous situation. In addition to hazards, the JSA includes the identification of exit routes, eye-wash stations, and other safety resources for employees.

In most cases, the power plant owners will require a JSA according to their across-the-board safety standards set in place for every technician or employee on site. This system is beneficial both to the power companies, to avoid any legal pitfalls, and for insulation contractors, to ensure a higher level of safety in the work environment.

When the JSA is complete, insulation contractors will provide employees with the necessary PPE as dictated by the outcome of the JSA. Again, this equipment may vary depending on the environment in which the installation will take place.

Beyond the JSA required by the power companies, insulation contractors should have their own set of safety precautions and employee guidelines in place based on the environment that employees will be working in. There should be different procedures in place depending on the type of plant (e.g., gas or coal) and the area within the plant that is being worked on. Creating a company culture of safety is essential for avoiding any lost-time injuries and completing a job on schedule and on budget.

Gas Power Plants

Because many leading power companies have adopted natural gas as a method of power generation as recently as the turn of the century, most gas-operated power plants are between 10 and 15 years old. This relatively young age results in gas plants having a more open layout and a generally higher level of cleanliness, increasing the ease and comfort of employees working in those environments. That being said, gas plants still use boilers to generate heat, similarly to coal-fired power plants, creating potentially hazardous high temperatures. Natural gas is also a much more volatile substance than coal, sometimes requiring workers to take extra precautions that would not be necessary in a coal plant.

Coal-Fired Power Plants

Coal-fired power plants are commonly known to be less worker friendly than gas plants due to the combination of high temperatures, dangerous fuel consumption by-products, and the tight proximity that exists in these environments. As with gas power plants, workers and insulation contractors must take special precautions specific to these plants in order to ensure a safe environment and a positive outcome.

Heat

The most common issue facing installers of industrial insulation in power plants is heat. In both gas and coal-fired power plants, high temperatures are a very prevalent issue that must be taken seriously as a safety hazard.

When boilers are in operation, temperatures in power plants can exceed 150°F, the highest temperature at which insulation installers are legally allowed to work. If the temperature is above 150°F, workers must leave the building and wait until the temperature decreases naturally or until fans are installed to negate the excessive heat. Even with temperatures approaching 150°F, workers are often required to install insulation in close proximity to boilers, and it is not uncommon for scaffolding systems to be assembled feet away from a boiler while the unit is still running. Additionally, the heat from a boiler will rise to the top of the unit and get trapped by the roof, creating even higher temperatures as workers approach the top floor of a facility, which could be as high as 16 stories. Working in these extreme conditions is a very real threat to employee safety that must be taken seriously.

The basic philosophy behind installing insulation in high-temperature power plant environments is to take all precautions possible. If a certain job is critical to the operation of a plant but requires an employee to enter a high-temperature area, that individual unit will need to be shut down in order to provide a safe environment for that worker. Additionally, workers are encouraged to take frequent breaks, often working in 15-minute intervals for a total of only 30 minutes worked per hour. While this system is far less time efficient than working for a full hour, it is vital for workers to cope with the extreme conditions present in power plants.

Acid Gas

Coal-fired power plants have their own set of unique hazards for insulation contractors, perhaps the most dangerous being acid gas. This gas is a byproduct of the burning coal that normally is emitted out of smoke stacks along with smoke and steam. However, if a line, duct, or boiler wall begins to leak, acid gas will escape into an area that could potentially be occupied by an insulation installer. The gas, which is several hundred degrees and rises upwards in a facility once escaping, will damage workers’ lungs, prevent breathing, and cause ainful eye irritation.

To overcome this issue, employees are required to wear respirators and special goggles with an anti-fog spray inside of the lenses. Regular safety glasses will not suffice because the gas can still reach the eyes of an insulation installer exposed to acid gas. In some cases, acid gas leaks will be severe enough to restrict access to certain floors, allowing access only to those installers wearing respirators and goggles. Acid gas leaks also make work slow, requiring insulation to be installed in 15-minute intervals. To compensate for this decreased installation rate, industrial insulation contractors have to create schedules that specifically compensate for any time lost due to hazardous conditions.

Fly Ash

Another common issue exclusive to coal-fired power plant facilities is fly ash. Caused by leaks in coal burners, fly ash consists of small particles of coal or dust that are blown out into units by heat and air circulation. Fly ash will eventually coat every surface in a facility with a small layer, including all grating and equipment. While it is the plant’s responsibility to maintain the level of ash, some older or poorly maintained facilities can have ash accumulation of up to 2 inches.

The health and safety concerns of fly ash include breathing difficulty and eye irritation. In addition, there is an increased risk of slipping or falling through dangerous areas of grating with bad structural integrity that may have been visually obscured by a layer of ash. The presence of fly ash in an area where insulation is being installed makes projects much more complex and time-consuming due to the extra precautions necessary to complete the job. Additionally, fly ash is easily agitated and becomes airborne once stepped on, making maintenance all the more difficult.

The issue of fly ash is overcome in a similar manner to acid gas—by providing employees with the correct PPE and scheduling ample time for an inevitably slower installation process. Prioritizing employee health and safety when scheduling an insulation project will ultimately result in a better project outcome with little, if any, lost-time injuries.

Tight Proximity

One industrial issue that is present in both coal and gas-fired power plants is the tight proximity of piping, electrical cables, and other plant utilities around which insulation installers must navigate in order to properly complete their task. In many plants, 3-foot wide electrical cable trays that carry cables across the entire plant will obstruct large areas where insulation needs to be installed or repaired.

Insulation contractors will often have to build scaffolding around pipes and electrical lines in both vertical and horizontal orientations. Creativity and ingenuity is required to come up with a safe and accessible scaffolding system that allows workers to successfully complete projects in power plants that were not designed with the installation and repair of insulation systems as a top priority. When navigating tight spaces, employees are often required to install insulation one piece at a time and build scaffolding as they progress. The job schedule must also compensate for the time lost navigating the tight proximity in power plant environments when installing insulation.

With a wide range of issues that employees must overcome to complete the installation and maintenance of industrial insulation in power plants, contractors must be thorough and proactive in providing effective measures to complete projects on time, on budget, and with as few worker injuries as possible.