When dealing with potentially hazardous machine systems, it’s important for industries to ensure the safety and security of the workers. Heater and boiler systems in industrial settings are critical to facility operations. These two systems generate heat and steam to produce thermal energy that can be used to power heavy machines.

But to do so, heater and boiler systems operate at a rate that can be hazardous to personnel. Generally, industrial heaters and boilers can reach temperatures more than 350°F. Aside from the extreme temperature, there are also several other occupational hazards. These include the risks of pipe explosion, carbon monoxide poisoning, and more. Considering this, industries must take measures that safeguard heater and boiler system operators.

This article explores the different strategies designed to minimize the risks associated with heater and boiler systems, including the use of machine guarding devices, lockout-tagout protocols, inspections, and more.

FIGURE 1: A risk identification and assessment tool.
FIGURE 1: A risk identification and assessment tool.
Image courtesy of Tradesafe

Heater and boiler systems safety strategies

Risk identification and assessment

One of the first things to understand to ensure heater and boiler system safety is the potential risks and hazards around them. Some of the most common hazards in these kind of industrial operations include:

  • Burns — Proximity to high-temperature equipment puts workers at high risk of burns. The steam produced by these machines also causes the temperature within the surrounding area to rise.
  • Explosions and fires — Heater and boiler systems burn off fuel to generate heat and steam. A poorly maintained or operated heater and boiler system can explode due to high levels of heat and pressure. Also, explosions can lead to subsequent fires within the facility.
  • Chemical exposure — Some heater and boiler systems use an array of chemicals to manage the quality of water they use. Continuous exposure can lead to chemical-related health risks and hazards.

More than knowing the risks, it’s critically important to learn how to identify them. Risk identification is a key component of preventive safety measures. It allows personnel to address and manage hazards, preventing accidents and injuries. In relation to this, hazards in heater and boiler operations are generally caused by corrosion fatigue, thermal fatigue, pitting, erosion, vibration, rupture, overheating, material and welding flaws, improper/poor maintenance, and operator error.

Use of machine safety tools and equipment

The heat and thermal energy produced by industrial heater and boiler systems can reach great proportions. Therefore, an important safety measure in such operations revolves around managing and controlling excess and potentially hazardous energy.

Workers can use an array of tools and equipment when operating heaters and boilers. One of the simplest, yet most critical, is the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). This can be in the form of suits to protect against the heat, safety glasses, gloves, and the like. PPE enhances worker safety and limits risks of minor injuries, such as cuts and burns.

Machine guards are another effective safety device that can protect workers. They serve as barriers from potentially hazardous mechanical motions. This includes rotating machine parts; points where the machine cuts, bores, and bends; as well as possible pinch and shear points where clothing or body could be caught accidentally.

During maintenance, the use of lockout-tagout (LOTO) devices and proper protocol is critical. Lockout locks physically isolate and limit access to machines and equipment. The tagout process indicates and communicates to workers the purpose of the procedure. These are extremely important when a heater or boiler is prepared for maintenance or service. LOTO prevents unauthorized access, minimizing the risk of accidents and injury.

Industries can also leverage more advanced safety technologies. Remote monitoring and alarm systems allow workers to oversee operations with minimal risks. Sensors and detectors can also be used to monitor and troubleshoot machine performance with higher accuracy. More importantly, these sensors can detect faults and abnormalities in the system. This alerts and notifies personnel, giving them enough time to perform interventions and precautions in case of emergency.

Preventive maintenance and regular inspection

Maintaining heater and boiler systems in tip-top condition is another way to ensure worker safety. Regular inspection allows early detection of faults and malfunctions. Machine maintenance is crucial in ensuring smooth operation and longevity. These are fundamental in minimizing risks and hazards when operating such heavy machines.

The process starts with routine machine inspection. At this stage, operators check and determine if the heater or boiler system is operating to standard. It is critical to inspect critical components of heater and boiler systems, particularly those that have a high risk of malfunctions or flaws. Inspections must also look for signs of equipment wear and tear to address them promptly.

Based on the observations during the inspection, the next step is to conduct maintenance procedures. Machine maintenance is critical in ensuring smooth operation and efficiency. But more than that, it allows operators to address minor problems before they turn into a major issue.

For boiler systems, some of the essential maintenance checks include:

  • Checking pipelines, valves, and connections for leaks.
  • Cleaning internal tubes, tanks, and combustion systems.
  • Testing the low water cutoff.
  • Performing water analysis and preventing scale and deposit buildup.

For heater systems, routine maintenance procedures involve:

  • Cleaning or replacing corroded, scaled, or damaged heating element surface
  • Fixing loose or frayed wiring connections
  • Checking and verifying thermostat settings
  • Clearing heater venting system

Operator training and safety education

The human factor is a critical element in ensuring workplace safety. Workers and machine operators are the ones primarily responsible for their own safety. Their actions and behavior can influence the degree of safety practiced in the workplace. This further emphasizes the importance of proper and effective training when it comes to industrial heater and boiler systems.

A comprehensive training program should not only discuss the fundamentals of industrial heater and boiler operations. It is not enough for workers to simply know how to start a machine. To ensure their safety, it is critical to discuss how to safely operate and maintain heater and boiler systems. It should highlight mistakes to avoid along with the consequences of such actions.

In hazardous industrial environments, it's important to put safety first. Establishing a rigid safety program for heater and boiler systems can reduce potential risks and enhance worker safety at all times. Training is also crucial to worker safety, especially in case of emergencies. Giving them hands-on experience can provide them with key information and the know-how to respond to urgent incidents with confidence.