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Soon after the introduction of electric power into coal mines, it was discovered that lethal explosions could be initiated by electrical equipment such as lighting, signals, or motors. The hazard of fire damp or methane accumulation in mines was well known by the time electricity was introduced, along with the danger of suspended coal dust. At least two British mine explosions were attributed to an electric bell signal system. In this system, two bare wires were run along the length of a drift, and any miner desiring to signal the surface would momentarily touch the wires to each other or bridge the wires with a metal tool. The inductance of the signal bell coils, combined with breaking of contacts by exposed metal surfaces, resulted in sparks which could ignite methane, causing an explosion.

In an industrial plant such as a refinery or chemical plant, handling of large quantities of flammable liquids and gases creates a risk of leaks. In some cases the gas, ignitable vapor or dust is present all the time or for long periods. Other areas would have a dangerous concentration of flammable substances only during process upsets, equipment deterioration between maintenance periods, or during an incident. Refineries and chemical plants are then divided into areas of risk of release of gas, vapor or dust known as divisions or zones.

The process of determining the type and size of these hazardous areas is called area classification. Guidance on assessing the extent of the hazard is given in the NFPA 497 or NFPA 499 standards published by the National Fire Protection Association for explosive gas or dust atmospheres respectively, or RP 500 and RP 505 standards published by the American Petroleum Institute for explosive gas or dust atmospheres respectively, and IEC 60079-10-1 or IEC 60079-10-2 standards published by the International Electrotechnical Commission for explosive gas or dust atmospheres respectively.