Why Fail-Safe isolation?

When isolation is critical but difficult, keeping it up can be challenging .  When it is automated, it requires so little of us, it is easy to forget.  If we don’t think about it, reliability can be ESSENTIAL.Geodesic ball before clouds

For example, in meat packing plants they isolate the processing of raw meat from handling and packaging of the cooked, canned or smoked products, generally kept on the shipping side of the plant.

Meat Cutting workers in yellow helmets cutting meat

When this processing/packing segregation is routine, workers can forget about the importance of separating these parts of the factory and cross from one side to another.  When workers do cross from meat processing into the packing area without proper isolation precautions, food poisoning problems are almost inevitable.

After several mass contamination incidents with hundreds sickened by listeria and other meat-borne diseases, regulations were put in place to enforce isolation.  Now, meat packing plants have walls and decontamination stations in place to force people crossing from raw meat isolation to leave the microbes behind before they can enter the packing department.  They often require a change to different color uniforms for the raw vs packing sides, so even clothing must be changed.  Food-borne illness outbreaks are now rare as a result of better isolation in meat processing.

Astronaut alone in spaceA space suit provides exceptional isolation to retain the air the astronaut needs, and defend her from the temperature extremes and vacuum around the suit.  If that isolation is not “Fail-Safe” she must be sure to have a very powerful “Plan B” in place, ready to go in a hurry, because she won’t last long without it.

Researchers, industrial workers and professionals in some other industries often need to process materials that decay, corrode, burn or explode when exposed to the air they breathe.  They generally depend on isolation within glove boxes, tanks, biological safety cabinets or other special enclosures to conduct their work in nitrogen, argon, sterile air or other non-reactive Glove box isolation unit in operationenvironments while holding back the ocean of outside air that endangers their work.  When this isolation fails, weeks or months of work can be destroyed, sometimes without the user even knowing it happened.  We will discuss ways many of these professionals can improve their results and work life with better more reliable isolation.

One way isolation impacts all of us is through the atmosphere and oceans we all share.  The effectiveness of isolation of fluorocarbons in refrigeration systems protects the ozone layer and helps to save us from UV radiation.  Effective isolation of greenhouse gasses so they don’t escape Earth from spaceinto the atmosphere is critical if global warming is to be minimized.

Simply put, with Fail Safe Isolation you can protect yourself, protect your family and help to save your planet.

Isolation is part of the lives we all live, whether we work inside an isolation clean-room, an oil-change franchise or our own home.  Fail Safe Isolation is about living those lives better, as more effective workers, healthier people and better citizens of the planet we all share.  This site is intended to help with that mission.  Please let us know how we are doing, and what else we can do to help.


Photo by Ronald Yang on Unsplash (Dome Ball in sky)

Photo credit: UNMEER via Visual Hunt / CC BY-ND

14 thoughts on “Fail-Safe Isolation


  • By sbhowmik - Reply

    I appreciate that you have patients to develop such a nice website, nice in the sense that very exceptional and not very commercial. Being an engineer I know how important it is to isolate energy sources and isolate our self from energy sources. If somebody is not exposed to the consequences of not being isolated then it is hard to understand the importance of isolation. I hope you will spread this concept through your website.

    Thanks and good luck

    • By Stephen Tattershall - Reply

      Thanks much for your review and your evaluation.  It is great to get such praise from a fellow engineer. We are trying to cover the full range of Isolation challenges, and energy sources play an important part.  I’m personally very sensitive to the need for energy isolation, as I’ve past experience with high voltage electrical and nuclear work.  I’ve not paid as much attention to this aspect of Isolation here, as my focus has been mostly on atmospheric isolation for the last decade, as part of my work as CTO of Banthrax corporation, since we make barrier isolation cabinets like Posi-Dome, used in R/D, Pharma and Nanotech.  I will heed your advice and spread the word about the importance of Isolation in general and energy isolation in particular.  Thanks for your attention and your input.

  • By Brandi - Reply

    This is a topic I’ve never really read into before! In the dental field which I am currently going to school for, isolation is very important when it comes to sterilization of instruments and supplies because you do not want to pass on any possible diseases. It’s interesting that there are so many different real world situations that isolation can apply to. Very interesting article!

    • By SteveT - Reply

      Thanks for checking us out, Brandi. Yes, we sell isolation equipment, and we are regularly surprised by some applications that need it. We have customers that use it for germination in mushroom farming, and for working with silicates and solvents in Theater Arts Prop departments. But many of our customers are in healthcare. We have sold more of our glove box units to a specialty pharmacy firm in Canada for Chemotherapy preparation than to anybody else. I’m glad you liked the article. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  • By Karl Madek/A. Madeira - Reply

    Excellent work on this technical aspect of isolation. In my job, I have been had serious problems with high heat loss rate due to insulation failures in piping. Surely, it’s a topic that must be taken into account in all devices and its applications. I congratulate you by your review and clarity in the exposition about the care should be taken and regarded in distinct arrangements.

    • By SteveT - Reply

      Thanks Karl. I appreciate your observations. Thermal isolation and isolation of all energy flows are issues for most industrial processes and for many processes in the laboratory and the home. Since no insulation can block all energy flow, total energy flow isolation is not possible, yet we can often provide enough of a barrier to provide better efficiency and reduced energy loss. Thanks again for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  • By shoval - Reply

    Amazing how fail to follow the isolation regulations can cause such terrible health outcomes

    • By SteveT - Reply

      Pretty common though. Much of the world fails to isolate sanitary sewage from public water systems and the atmosphere from industrial and agricultural toxins. Sometimes this violates regulations; always it violates the public interest. I’m not sure how often the problem is corruption or lack of enforcement, and how often it is incompetence. In any case, it’s pretty common.

  • By S. Fred - Reply

    I get the idea of fail-safe, but don’t common microelectronics do that? It would be bad if a bsc or a fume hood was to fail, and toxic stuff got out to expose a worker, a building or the neighbors, but isn’t there a micro-controller or something to check if it’s working and make sure it is. If there are problems the control can’t fix won’t it set off alarms or something to ensure nothing leaks or gets exposed?
    Isn’t that kind of a smart control what a fail-safe is?

    • By SteveT - Reply

      There are definitely safe guard and alarm systems in some advanced fume hoods and Biological Safety Cabinets (BSC) but the degree they can be “fail-safe” is limited. A fume hood has an open front with protection based on airflow that “washes” the toxic or unhealthy material away from the user and through ducts, fans and filters. If the fan motor fails, power is lost or the duct work or filter are blocked, the protection stops immediately and any contaminated air, gas or droplets begin flowing out into the room.

      Electronic systems may detect the failure, if they are battery backed up and their sensors are operational, but an alarm is about all they can do. They can’t stop the toxic release right by the user. In addition, to be effective the protective air flow must be laminar – that is slow and steady, at just the right speed. There are many failure modes that result in turbulent (non-laminar) air that are very tough for electronic sensors and control systems to detect. In those cases people could use the hood unsafely for hours or days without knowing it wasn’t working.

      An example of a closed, fail-safe barrier isolation glove box is the Safe-T-Dome negative pressure enclosure. This system provides negative pressure (slight vacuum) isolation, even after the vacuum pump power is lost or the pump hose is broken. This is temporary protection, but it works, even if a primary system fails. Of course no form of fail-safe can protect against every major catastrophic failure, but the most likely major failures can be anticipated by a fail-safe system.

  • By Jambex - Reply

    Is not so clear how to isolate the materials that rust rapidly. Can such isolation be “fail-safe” when so much air is all around?

    • By SteveT - Reply

      Well the “how to” of process isolation is pretty straightforward, since we do it frequently. We isolate materials and processes from the air when we simply do them dunked in water or in a vacuum-sealed bag, etc. Also there are plenty of simple glove box systems that allow air to be purged away, displaced by nitrogen, argon or other relatively inert gas.
      Fail-Safe is a relative term, generally, and it doesn’t mean there is an absolute impossibility that the system will fail. A true “fail-safe” system will simply remain in the desired condition (in this case oxygen or air free) state for a time, even when the most likely expected failures occur. A good example is a system that will maintain protection during a power failure or failure of the most complicated component like a pump or fan.

  • By Rawan - Reply

    How didn’t I match between cross contamination and isolation? Food quality control and hygiene are my major field, and isolation should be taken into consideration strictly otherwise no food factory, restaurant, or bakery will be successful, food poisoning and bad reputation are the price the owner pays when he doesn’t commit to isolation!
    Great post!

    • By SteveT - Reply

      Great observation, Rawan. Most of us in technical professions take courses in Chemistry, Physics and Biology that require isolation in laboratory work or other areas, but they rarely teach us about that isolation. I’m not sure why so much of the need for isolation is assumed rather than taught.

      We all have a sense of the importance of isolation, even at an instinctive level. Even my cat likes to isolate himself at times in a box or a bag or under a blanket. I’d ask him why, but he isn’t very talkative; I assume it is instinctive.

      Your perspective on food science, hygiene and the value of isolation when we deal with food professionally or in our kitchens would be very useful to visitors here. I hope you can share a post with us as a guest blogger on that topic soon, so we can learn from your expertise.

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