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Atmospheric composition

Supplier: MSA Australia By: John Spokes
01 June, 2012

Battery-powered, direct-reading instruments are classified as two groups – single-gas instruments or multiple-gas instruments – typically monitoring one or a combination of atmospheric conditions.

Depending on the capabilities of the instrument, monitoring can be conducted simultaneously for oxygen and combustible gas, or for oxygen, combustible gas and toxic gases. These devices are commonly referred to as 2-in-1, 3-in-1, 4-in-1 or 5-in-1 alarms.

No matter which type of instrument is used to check environmental gas concentrations, regular monitoring should be performed because a contaminant’s level of combustibility or toxicity might increase even if it initially appears to be low or non-existent. In addition, oxygen deficiency can occur unexpectedly.

Atmospheric composition

To determine the composition of an atmosphere, reliable instruments should be used to draw air samples. If possible, do not open the entry portal to the confined space before this step has been completed. Sudden changes in atmospheric composition within the confined space could cause violent reactions, or dilute the contaminants in the confined space, giving a false low initial gas concentration. When testing permit-required spaces for acceptable entry conditions, always test in the following order:

  • oxygen content
  • flammable gases and vapours
  • potential toxic air contaminants

Comprehensive testing should be conducted in various locations within the work area. Some gases are heavier than air, and tend to collect at the bottom of a confined space. Others are lighter, and are usually in higher concentrations near the top of the confined space. Still others are the same molecular weight as air, so they can be found in varying concentrations throughout the space. This is why test samples should be drawn at the top, middle and bottom of the space to pinpoint varying concentrations of gases or vapours.

The results of the atmospheric testing will have a direct impact on the selection of protective equipment necessary for the tasks in the area. It may also dictate the duration of worker exposure to the environment of the space, or whether an entry will be made at all. Substance-specific detectors should be used whenever actual contaminants have been identified.