Why safety is a key innovation driver

As power becomes ever more ubiquitous in our lives, the question of safety continues to prompt both discussion and innovation.

From electric cars to connected homes and digitized businesses, we are all interacting with growing volumes of electrical energy every day. For this reason, manufacturers and producers are taking ever greater care to safeguard those who may be interacting with electrical energy. This is just as true for those working in the electrical industry as elsewhere.

When it comes to safety, there are three main elements that must be protected: employees, operations and the environment. This means zero-harm to employees while they are carrying out their day-to-day operations on-site or when traveling to and from plants. By paying attention to operational safety then unplanned downtime caused by failures or incidents are reduced. An outcome that would otherwise lead to loss of production and possible damage to process equipment. Such damage can cause harm to personnel, but also to the plant itself and to its surrounding environment.

Over the years, the industry has implemented various measures to mitigate risks to safety, including more stringent assessments of work done on equipment and the development of arc energy limitation technologies. This emphasizes how important it is that innovation go hand-in-hand with safety.

The move to safety by design

People working with electricity 20-30 years ago were specialists in their field who knew the machinery down to the last detail and grew in their careers alongside the equipment. However, today we find that workers are more comfortable changing companies and are thus exposed to different electrical equipment throughout their career. Due to this higher movement of workers, there’s been a drive across industry to become less dependent on people when it comes to safety and for equipment to be designed with built-in safety measures to reduce the margin for error – alongside robust and regular safety education and training.

As well as making machinery more intelligent and adhering to the strictest safety regulations set out in standards IEC 61439-1/-2 and IEC TR 61641, training is a key contributor to maintaining the level of awareness required to ensure the highest safety standards. Training not only allows companies to get their changing workforce up to speed with the latest protocols, but to reflect on lessons learned in the event of any incidents and share best practice from across the industry, in order to continuously improve procedures.

Operating safer switchgear

When it comes to switchgear safety, there’s a very small probability of something going wrong, but since any threat can potentially endanger human life, eliminating the chances of an incident is of utmost importance to companies, manufacturers and workers.

An arc is one of the most serious safety issues that switchgear manufacturers and operators encounter – and try their hardest to mitigate against. An arc is an explosion-like release of electrical energy that can be very harmful to equipment and to people, if they are standing close by. The most common root causes of an arc are human error, mechanical failure and sometimes even rodents. The energy of the arc is highest on the busbar, where the arc duration and current amplitude are not limited by the breakers or fuses. In NeoGear, the severity of arcing is reduced dramatically by the intrinsically safe, fully insulated bus plate design. As a result, the root cause of creating a severe arc is eliminated. To put this into context, even if a screwdriver falls into the busbar area during maintenance work, it would be impossible to ignite an arc.

What’s more, reducing electrical joints in switchgear proportionally increases reliability, therefore we reduced the number of electrical joints in NeoGear by ten times, further improving the safety of the system.

Improving safety through predictive maintenance

The introduction of predictive maintenance is another advancement helping manufacturers and operators to improve safety standards, by maintaining their equipment in the optimum condition. If equipment starts to wear through years of use, it can eventually lead to a failure, causing unplanned downtime and personal injury in the event of an arc. Meanwhile, routine inspections to check on the condition of equipment present another potential hazard in the event of human error. The moment you open the doors to a switchgear, there’s a risk, if the required safety precautions and processes are not followed. However, if operators are alerted only as and when maintenance is required, there’s no need to open the switchgear unnecessarily or go into areas where no maintenance is needed. The probability of something going wrong is therefore reduced and people aren’t needlessly exposed.

Safety lies at the heart of innovation

When companies, in industries from oil and gas to food and beverage, call for innovation, safety is at the forefront of their minds. Safeguarding workers and ensuring the reliability of their equipment is their priority – as well as their biggest challenge. We must continue to support businesses when it comes to safety and to push the boundaries when it comes to technological innovation to ensure safe, smart, and sustainable solutions for everyone.


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About the author

Ronald van Leeuwen

I am a Global Product Manager for IEC low-voltage switchgear. I joined ABB more than 20 years ago and have had the great opportunity to work in many different areas of our low-voltage switchgear business. More recently I was involved in the impressive development of the ABB NeoGear switchgear based on the innovative laminated bus plate technology. My goal is to provide scalable solutions to our customers that addresses real pain points in their day-to-day business today but also in the future.
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