5 Things You Need To Know About Safe To Touch Standards

While system process control frequently takes the spotlight during insulation system design, personnel safety is equal in terms of importance. In the industrial insulation industry, safe-to-touch standards are in place to help ensure that personnel working in and around high-temperature systems are not put at excessive risk by the extremely high operating temperatures. In environments where temperatures can exceed 1000°F, ensuring that plant personnel are well-protected against such extremes is critical.

Here are the 5 things you need to know about safe-to-touch temperatures in industrial settings.

  1. What are they?Safe-to-touch temperatures are temperature standards that were established by ASTM C1055. This standard recommends that pipe surface temperatures do not exceed 140°F. Why 140°? Well, an average person can remain in contact with a 140°F surface for up to five seconds without sustaining irreversible burn damage. (This is not something we recommend verifying).
  2. Why do we need them?Designing systems to meet safe-to-touch temperature standards helps to create a safer working environment. The positive ripple-effects that result from a safer working environment is significant. It may start with a dramatically reduced risk of injury- which then translates to a more confident work force that feels both valued and safe where they work. This, in turn, can improve worker morale and employee production. Additionally, safer working environments reduce medical/workman’s comp claims as employees are less likely to sustain severe burns or fall victim to heat stroke.
  3. How do we meet them?While the ASTM standard recommends surface temperatures should be at or below 140°F, some engineers responsibly specify systems that have 120°F surface temperatures to err on the side of safety. The primary method for maintaining safe-to-touch surface temperatures is through specifying the right insulation material and insulation thickness for the application. Bear in mind that this also needs to account for the jacketing. (You can also use PART, our product selection tool that calculates which product best meets the needs of your application on your custom selection criteria.)
  4. Who enforces them? The Safe-to-Touch Police.
    a.      Who really enforces them?All kidding aside, safe-to-touch temperatures are set and enforced by each specific facility.  Safe-to-touch temperatures described in ASTM C1055 are a standard, but not a requirement. As a result, it is up to plant operators and owners to establish what is necessary for a safe and effective environment in their plant. Maximum outside surface temperature requirements for pipe and equipment systems are typically spelled out in the insulation design specifications. While some owners or operators may choose to deprioritize safe-to-touch recommendations in favor of saving money, many choose to make safe-to-touch recommendations a priority as the risk for injury is too great to plant personnel.
  5. What factors could unexpectedly affect safe-to-touch temperatures?It is easier for designers to account for the typical temperature influencers when designing a system for safe-to-touch temperatures. These considerations include things like pipe size, insulation material, thickness, jacketing, process temperatures, and ambient temperatures. There are, however, other variables that can affect safe-to-touch temperatures after the insulation has been installed. If not considered, these variables can significantly increase the risk for injury as many plant operators may be under the impression that the system was designed to meet safe-to-touch standards.

    For example, binder burnout can play a major role in whether or not an insulation is able to maintain its insulating values. When the binder is burned off entirely, an insulation settles, losing its “loft.” This significantly affects the insulation’s ability to insulate. Unfortunately, binder burnout happens beneath the metal jacketing, causing it to go unnoticed until someone becomes injured. Other subtle influencers include things like vibration, wet insulation/liquid contamination, or insulation with low compressive strength that cannot withstand the rigors of its application.

    For each of these variables, the primary way to ensure the system is operating safely is to perform regular maintenance and inspection of the materials to ensure that nothing in or around the system has been compromised.

In our view, safe-to-touch temperatures should not be overlooked or disregarded as a system requirement. Not only are they a critical component to reducing the risk of injury in high-temperature operations, but they are also key to operating a facility that puts the safety of its people first.