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IECEx in Explosion Protection: IEC/TC 31 System

Harmony in Hazardous Areas: Achieving International Explosion Protection Standards with IECEx

| Author: Anke Geipel-Kern

In terms of harmonisation of hazardous areas, Australia has become the international poster boy.
In terms of harmonisation of hazardous areas, Australia has become the international poster boy. (Source: ©DOC RABE Media - stock.adobe.com)

The IECEx system is breaking through the jungle of standards. IEC/TC 31 standardizes and harmonizes international explosion protection standards. Cooperation in the committees creates real added value for suppliers of explosion-protection components. This year, the IEC/TC 31 Committee met for 14 days at R. Stahl in Waldenburg, Germany.

For manufacturers and users, the large number of standards and directives that control the production and operation of devices and machines in hazardous areas sometimes seems like a jungle growing in the wild. No sooner is a path cleared in the guidelines than a standard changes and the work is back to square one. Therefore, harmonisation is required. In the mid 90s, experts created the IECEx system under the umbrella of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) for this exact reason.

Harmonizing Explosion Protection Regulations Across The World

Just like the European Atex system, the IECEx is meant to standardise and amalgamate regulations for explosion protection across the world. In order to achieve this, members of the IEC/TC 31 meet several times a year and work together as part of maintenance teams and working groups on new standards and standardisations.

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This takes a lot of effort, but working together in standardisation bodies is definitely worth it for manufacturers. Otto Walch, who has been participating in technical committee 31 for R. Stahl for many years, reiterates that it allows manufacturers to be directly involved in the standardisation process and allows them to introduce new technologies.

The committee's task is to harmonise all standards for technical equipment in hazardous areas for manufacturers and users alike. On a standards landscape that has been established in this way, manufacturers' devices and components are certified later on. Therefore, the technical committees are like the heart of the IECEx system, whose aim it is to unify the certification process in hazardous areas on a global scale. Walch is also a member of the Chairman’s Advisory Group, a body assigned to the TC 31 that decides on the working activities of the committee.

"Processes, institutions and people are also included in the safety promise", IEC/TC 31 member Otto Walch states.
"Processes, institutions and people are also included in the safety promise", IEC/TC 31 member Otto Walch states. (Bild: R. Stahl)

How to Develop a Success Story for Hazardous Areas

Since it was created, the IECEx system has developed into a real success story. The IECEx system offers a comprehensive perspective on explosion protection and is pursuing a clear aim, says Walch: regulatory frameworks and inspection and certification practices should be homogenised across the world. Then, what is considered safe in one country will automatically be recognised as being safe in the rest of the world.

This makes the former patchwork quilt of regulations a thing of the past and makes approval procedures a lot easier for manufacturers. 40 countries have joined the certification scheme. Walch highlights that there are hardly any blank patches left on the map, but there are still regions in which TC 31 standards are implemented with national deviations. In the mid-term, the IECEx certificate should become a type of passport for an explosion-protected product that provides it with direct access to all markets. The aim has not been achieved in its entirety but many improvements have already been seen. Test reports according to the IECEx system are now widely recognised. Therefore, it is now possible to get national certificates relatively easily without the product having additional verifications, Walch explains.

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Waldenburg as a Hot Spot for Standardisation in Explosion Protection

Traditionally, conferences take place at alternating locations around the world. This year, the explosion protection specialist was the first manufacturer in many years to host the IEC/TC 31 conference. Therefore, Waldenburg became the hotspot of explosion protection from the 25th March to the 5th April 2019. Almost 200 specialists met in 22 different working groups. They continued work on international standards and updated them.

R. Stahl hosted a two-week conference for the Technical Committee 31 of the International Electrotechnical Commission in March 2019.
R. Stahl hosted a two-week conference for the Technical Committee 31 of the International Electrotechnical Commission in March 2019. (Source: R. Stahl)

Walch has named 4 standards of the 60079 series that are important for manufacturers and are representative of the long list of jobs that the TC 31 is working hard on: part 11 of the IEC 60079 is on the topic of intrinsic safety in hazardous areas, part 1 concerns device protection using frameproof enclosures, part 7 is about device protection using increased safety and part 14 concerns project engineering, selecting and setting-up electric systems.

Several Trends Had an Impact on Harmonization Efforts

In the meantime, the trend towards networking as part of industry 4.0 projects has also had an impact on the comittee's work. Therefore the most topical question is two-pronged: how are manufacturers and users handling threats of cyber attacks and how is the implementation of IT security systems affecting the applications in hazardous areas.

A standard that was once approved remains stable for several years and is then re-revised and adapted to state-of-the-art technology. "This period gives the manufacturer planning security", Walch explains. The committee then works on the new version of the standard for two to three years, allowing it to guarantee that new technologies and safety-relevant experiences can be incorporated into the process.

The approaches of Atex and IECEx are similar in many aspects. Yet, whilst the device or the system is always the focal point of inspections in the Atex system, the IECEx system goes beyond this traditional approach. "Not only products but also processes, institutions and people are included in the safety promise", Walch explains.

For some years, there have also been certifications for repair shops ("IECEx Certified Service Facilities Scheme") and now Ex experts have their skills inspected ("IECEx Certification of Personnel Competencies"). The defined goal is to have easy and reliable standards for selecting qualified services for maintenance and repair work because using external partners for these tasks has been common in the industry for some time.

Explosion Protection Worldwide: IECEx Goes Global!

Walch knows from his close contact with users that it is often no longer possible to perform these tasks in-house.

The facts and figures speak for themselves and show how successful the harmonisation efforts are: the IECEx system is now globally accepted, with almost 36,000 certificates for devices, 2,500 for people and 16,000 for quality assurance recognition.

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