Worker Safety from Stray Current Shock Hazards in Electrolytic Tankhouses

Additonal authors: Gebrehiwot, E.. Book title: Proceedings of the 58th Conference of Metallurgists Hosting Copper 2019. Chapter: . Chapter title:

Proceedings, Vol. Proceedings of the 58th Conference of Metallurgists Hosting Copper 2019, 2019

Dominguez, S.

Copper electrowinning/electrorefining (EW/ER) is powered by direct current (DC) rectifiers that typically generate 30,000 to 70,000 amps and a bus-bus voltage of 200 to 500 volts DC. Tankhouses are designed so that DC current flows through “cell lines” which contain individual EW/ER cells electrically connected in series. Electrolyte composed of copper sulfate and sulfuric acid in water forms the “liquid conductor” that connects the metallic conductors in this circuit. In this setting, stray current is a DC current that strays from and therefore bypasses the tankhouse circuit by finding a path to ground, often through the electrolyte in pipelines that feed into and discharge from the cells, or through dried electrolyte (i.e. sulfate), which is also electrically conductive. Tankhouse workers can be exposed to shock hazards if they become part of a stray current path to ground. This presentation details examples of stray current shock hazards in electrolytic tankhouses and provides voltage and amperage measurements associated with stray current in these examples. A review of critical safety controls in EW/ER tankhouses that will mitigate the risk of employee shock from stray current is also provided. INTRODUCTION Electrolytic tankhouses are designed to deliver relatively large amperages of DC current to a series of electrolytic cells in which copper is plated out of solution using the classic anode-cathode pair geometry within each cell. Electrolyte is the “liquid conductor” that transfers current in between the metallic conductors of the cell. The metallic conductors include inter-cell copper bus bars and the anodes and cathodes themselves. It is sometimes forgotten that electrolyte as a conductor is capable of delivering DC current outside the designed circuit of a tankhouse. Stray current is a DC current that strays from the tankhouse electrical circuit by finding a path to follow other than the designed path. Safety becomes a concern when there is a risk of an employee becoming part of an accidental stray current path, thereby suffering an electrical shock. In 2016, Freeport-McMoRan (FMI) suffered a fatality at one of its copper electrowinning tankhouses. The forensic analysis concluded that stray current from the tankhouse rectifier contributed to the fatality. An employee accidentally fell into contact with a metal flange at the end of an HDPE pipe that was collecting cell overflow electrolyte from the tankhouse. DC current passed through the employee to ground, creating a shock that was judged to contribute to his death. The situation was exasperated because the employee was unconscious, and therefore was exposed to the stray current for several minutes before being found. In addition, the employee’s clothing was saturated with liquid, and the employee was found kneeling in puddled liquid on the ground. FMI immediately began an investigation into the root cause of the stray current that was measured at the scene. Sufficient electrolyte had accumulated in the HDPE pipe such that a continuous path was formed between it and electrolyte that was continuously overflowing from energized electrowinning cells. The metal flange on the pipe was the metallic conductor that carried the current to the employee from the electrolyte inside the pipe. Current then flowed through the employee to ground. Because of this incident, FMI undertook an extensive review of the hazards of stray current in EW/ER. FMI’s tankhouse workforce received a Tankhouse Electrical Safety training course developed in- house to insure worker understanding of stray current hazards. Tankhouse design changes were implemented to better insulate workers from stray current. Personal protective equipment (PPE) standards were also reviewed and changes made.
Keywords: Copper 2019, COM2019