One of my work duties is to give safety training on the principles of electrostatic safety: ESD training we call it. The group of people who go through my training are new employees. These folks come from all walks of life with education ranging from high school/GED to BS chemists & engineers to PhD chemists & engineers. In order to be compliant with OSHA and with what we understand to be best practices, we give personnel who will be working with chemicals extensive training in all of the customary environmental, health and safety areas.

I have instructed perhaps 80 to 100 people in the last 6 years. At the beginning of each session I query the group for their backgrounds and ask if it includes any electricity or electronics study or hobbies. With the exception of two electricians in the group, this survey has turned up a resounding zero positive responses.

Admittedly, there could be some selection bias here. It could be that people with electrical knowledge generally do not end up in the chemical industry. My informal observations support this. But I’m not referring to experts in the electrical field. I refer to people who recall having ever heard of Ohm’s law. One might have guessed that the science requirements for high school graduation may have included rudimentary electrical concepts. One might have further suspected that hobby electronics could have occupied the earlier years of a few attendees. Evidently not. And it does not appear that parents have been very influential in this matter either.

I’m struggling to be circumspect rather than righteous. It is not necessary for any given individual to have learned any particular field of study. It is not even necessary for most people to have studied electricity. But it is important for a core of individuals to have done so. So, where are they? And why aren’t more people curious enough to strike out on their own in the acquisition of electrical knowledge?

Back to electrostatics. In order to have a working grasp of electrostatic principles, the concept of the Coulomb has to be conveyed. Why the Coulomb? Because it is the missing piece that renders electrostatic concepts as mechanistic. It is my contention that a mechanistic grasp of anything can help a person to reason their way through a question. The alternative is rote memorization. The mechanistic approach is what drives learning in the natural sciences.

To be safe but still effective as an employee, a person needs to be able to discriminate what will and what will not generate and hold static charge to at least some degree in a novel circumstance. By that I mean how accumulated or stranded charge can form and what kind of materials can be effectively grounded. If you are working with bulk flammables, your reflexes need to be primed continuously to recognize a faulty ground path in the equipment around you. At the point of operation, somebody’s head has to be on a swivel looking for off-normal conditions.

It is possible to cause people to freeze in fear and over-react to unseen hazards like static electricity. But mindless spooking is a disservice to everyone. To work around flammable materials safely requires that a person understand and respect the operating boundaries of flammable material handling. Those boundaries are grounding and bonding (see NFPA 77), avoiding all ignition sources, good housekeeping, and maintaining an inert atmosphere over the flammable material.

Much of electrostatic safety in practice rests on awareness of the fire triangle and how to avoid constructing it.

Back to electrical education. There are numerous elements of a basic understanding of electricity that will aid in a person’s life, including safely working around flammable materials. One element is the concept of conduction and what kinds of materials conduct electric current. Another is the concept of a circuit and continuity. Voltage and its relationship to current follows from the previous concepts.

I would offer that the ability to operate software or computers is secondary to basic knowledge of how things work.

Connecting these ideas to electrostatics are the Coulomb and the Joule. One volt of potential will add one Joule of energy to one Coulomb of charges. One Ampere of current is one Coulomb of charges passing a point over one second. Finally, one Ohm is that resistance which will allow one Ampere of charge to move by the application of one volt.

For a given substance- dust or vapor- a minimum amount of energy (Joules) must be rapidly released in order to cause an ignition. This is referred to as MIE, Minimum Ignition Energy, and is commonly measured in milliJoules, mJ.

A discussion on sparking leads naturally into the concept of power as the rate of energy transfer in Watts (Joules per second), connecting to both the Joule and Ohm’s Law. Rapid energy transfer is better able to be incendive owing to the finite time needed for energy to disperse. Slow energy transfer may not be incendive simply because the energy needed to initiate and sustain combustion promptly disperses into the surroundings.

A discussion of energy and power is useful for a side discussion on how the electric company charges for energy in units of kilowatt hours (kWh). This is a connection of physics to money.

The overall point is that a rudimentary knowledge of electrical phenomena is of general use, even in the world of chemical manufacturing. I often hear people talk about the importance of “tech” in regard to K-12 education. By that they seem to say that using software is the critical skill.  I would offer that the ability to operate software or computers is secondary to basic knowledge of how things work. Anyone with a well rounded education should be able to learn to use software as they need it.

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