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Tom Brennan on explosive atmospheres and IEC Young Professionals

When working in explosive atmospheres, you absolutely want standards behind practices and processes. Tom Brennan is an electrical engineer helping to develop such international standards, and an IEC Young Professional programme alumnus. Tom explains more about making standards, and why they matter.

Committee member, electrical engineer and IEC Young Professional Tom Brennan

‘From a young age I was interested in processes and problem solving. When a friend’s father invited me to join him and my friend at the paper mill he worked at in Kawerau I was fascinated at how it all worked; seeing logs going in and paper coming out, the processes involved to do that and hearing about the challenges involved, what needed fixing and how people kept everything running.’

Over a decade later and Tom’s mindset hasn’t changed. Now he’s applying this problem solving to international and joint standards and is driven by a passion to make industrial processes safer.

In 2019 Tom joined the EL-014 (Electrical Equipment for Explosive Atmospheres) and MS-011 (Classification of Hazardous Areas) joint Australian and New Zealand committees where he brings his experience in hazardous areas and electrical engineering. Now based in Christchurch, he’s worked on projects in New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia the and the United Kingdom across diverse industries such as: power generation and transmission, pulp and paper, metals and minerals, food and beverage, water and waste, and chemicals and manufacturing.

First exposure to committees

‘University gave me my first awareness and application of international standards. In one of the courses on power systems applications, the lecturer had a power transformer that was not functioning correctly. Our task was to determine why, based on standards and test results. Standards give guidance on how to interpret those results and whether it’s safe to continue to run until a replacement transformer could be obtained or to take it out of service immediately.

‘Being inquisitive, I wondered who writes these standards and why are they written this way. Several years ago I was doing some project work with an electrical inspector who happened to be the Chair of one of the committees. I expressed interest in observing a committee meeting and was invited to attend in Sydney at Standards Australia. That key moment and connection prompted me to join. I’m very grateful to fellow IEC Young Professional and EL-014 committee chair Jason McGee and MS-011 committee chair Garry House who have been generous with their time to help me on my journey with standards development.

‘When joining joint Australia / New Zealand committees, you need an endorsement by a nominating organisation, so I represent Engineering New Zealand on the committees I’m on. Most of the work I’ve been involved in has been adoption of international IEC standards, and to be able to contribute you need to know what is going on at IEC. Understanding local application is important so we can form a position on what we want that IEC standard to do and ensure it is in the best shape possible for Australia and New Zealand when it’s time to adopt the IEC standard locally.

‘For younger people getting involved one barrier might be thinking 'I need to be an expert and have decades of experience'. This isn’t the case. You do need some practical experience working with standards and understanding of the fundamental principles involved, but you have to start somewhere. This can be 'I have worked with these standards, have practical experience and can see how they could be improved.'

Explaining explosive atmospheres

‘Standards are critical for the work engineers, tradespeople, plant operators, equipment designers and regulators do in hazardous areas. The AS/NZS and IEC 60079 series of standards is really big with around 50 standards and originally came about from learnings from operation of gassy underground coal mines. We don’t have underground coal mining in NZ anymore but many other industries that you might not think of work with materials and processes that could lead to explosive atmospheres.

‘These include the emerging hydrogen energy industry. The hydrogen standards review report by Standards New Zealand referenced many relevant standards. Production, storage and use of hydrogen isn’t new, but the way it’s being used and where is changing. Then there’s the oil and gas industries of course, and every time you fill your car for example, that forecourt is a potentially explosive atmosphere area.

‘The paper industry and mills like Tasman and Kinleith use chemical digestion of wood chips, and a multitude of naturally occurring chemicals are derived from this process including toxic hydrogen sulphide and flammable turpentine. We also have massive industries built on farming and fertiliser production and storage also requires control of explosion hazards.

‘Food and beverage industries have explosive atmospheres, for example whiskey and gin distilleries with ethanol production. Dusts like flour, sugar and wheat found in flour mills for example pose significant explosion hazards. When doing explosion hazard assessments we need to consider all the flammable materials at a site – even the ammonia in industrial refrigeration used for dairy and meat works can be an explosion hazard.

‘I use some standards a lot more than others, such as those used to assess and identify where explosion hazards exist, and how to select and design systems for use in those areas i.e. ‘we have identified that this room has an explosion hazard present’. From here we know it needs special precautions to avoid potential sources of ignition.’

Everyone benefits

‘We work closely with our Australian counterparts and representation is by industry bodies that cover those organisations affected by the standards. Diverse perspectives ensure a broad application is considered with representation for electrical workers, universities, plant workers, consultants, equipment manufacturers, certifying laboratories and regulators to name a few. You need the right constitution on a committee so it’s not skewed by one part of the industry. That’s where the consensus approach has real value.

‘Standards can take some time to develop, it's mostly done by volunteers, and you might have up to 30 people involved. A lot of the drafting will typically be done by a smaller group, and I’ve been the lead drafter on one standard project which was a great experience. Some committee members put in huge amounts of personal time and give great value and that’s something that deserves recognition. There’s also great value to employers to support staff as their experts then grow their knowledge and networks in their field.

‘So why do people do it? You build an incredible network and meet like-minded, passionate people. I have people and a huge pool of knowledge I can approach now where I can say ‘I have this problem and these are my ideas’ to help solve those problems. Sometimes people might have a solution they’ve tried. New Zealand is a very small country, we just don’t have the ability to do all this work ourselves so it’s important to be actively participating in international committees.

‘The most value of course comes to industries across New Zealand, as the standards help facilitate trade and makes it easier for governments create legislation. They can just quote what standards to comply with and leave technical details to the subject matter experts on committees.’

Find out more about the IEC Young Professionals Programme:

IEC Young Professionals(external link)