Compressed air is a vital energy source for industry, providing safe power for a wide range of machinery, equipment and power tools. However, it can also present significant risks for operators and cause serious workplace accidents.
Good working practices are essential to ensure the health administration and safety of personnel in the vicinity.
Remember that compressed air exits a nozzle at extremely high speed and has the capacity to cause serious injury. It’s vital to pay careful attention to use, storage and maintenance to minimise the dangers of compressed air used at high pressures.
Common Uses for Air Compressors
So where are air compressors commonly used? From heavy-duty jackhammers in construction to power tools and even paint sprayers, high-pressure air compressors are versatile and important machines. Here are just a few potential applications.
- Inflating tyres
- Crop spraying
- Powering machinery including cutting and welding
- Pharmaceuticals – compressed air is used at almost every stage of the manufacturing and packaging processes
- Power generation
- Food manufacturing and processing
- Even roller coasters at fun fairs!
Common Air Compressor Hazards
Compressed air can be a dangerous commodity – particularly commercial air compressors operating at high speed with significant levels of force in order to perform their tasks. Occupational safety should be the first consideration for the health and safety manager and the entire company.
Typical hazards include:
- Risk to soft tissue
- Injuries to eyes
- Damage to hearing through excess noise levels
- Electrical hazards
- Risk of explosion
- Fire risks
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
Is It Safe to Breathe Air From a Compressor?
This can depend on a number of issues, such as whether the compressed air has been filtered and classed as breathable air. Compressed air used in scuba diving tanks is subject to specific regulations, and high-quality, breathable compressed air is vital.
Using compressed air can lead to an increased level of flying dust particles in the area, which means that for many applications where compressed air is in use, respirators should be worn.
Is it possible for an air compressor to cause fatal injuries?
Compressed air is generally viewed as a safe source of power, so when used under good working practices and safe operation, the risk of a fatality is low. However, it must be remembered that an air compressor is a powerful machine and an incident like an explosion of the compressor tank is a serious hazard and can pose significant risk to people in the area.
Wearing the right personal protective equipment, awareness of risk at all times and keeping equipment well maintained and in good working order will reduce the potential for injury.
Should an air compressor be used to remove dust from clothing, components or work surfaces?
Production equipment does collect dust and other particles. Most air compressors were not designed for cleaning purposes. Still, many workplaces and operators do use them to remove dust and debris from machinery and equipment, to clean filters and even to clean clothing and surfaces.
It’s important to be aware of the dangers, exercise caution and implement proper work procedures. It’s possible to lose an eye even at pressures as low as 12psi.
Is cleaning with compressed air allowed by law in the UK?
There are no specific laws relating to the use of compressed air for cleaning purposes, but HSE (Health and Safety Executive) warns against it. If it is used for cleaning purposes, pressures should be limited to below 30psi, and protective goggles and equipment should be used.
It’s important to remember that other people in the area may not be wearing PPE, and the particles blown out for cleaning purposes can present a risk to them, as well as to other unguarded pieces of equipment in the vicinity.
The British Compressed Air Society stresses that the operation of a compressed air system is subject to legal requirements.
What are the dangers of using compressed air?
Electrical shorts can ignite flammable materials and oil leaks in compressor systems can cause fires, whilst malfunctions can lead to air compressor tank explosions with the attendant risks of shrapnel, airborne particulates, fire and very serious injuries.
Gas-powered compressors used in confined spaces can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, and therefore adequate ventilation is critical.
Good working practices and compliance with health and safety executive requirements should be maintained to reduce the chances of trip hazards.
How can compressed air damage your body
Compressed air can cause significant damage to human tissue, it is capable of breaking open human skin at just 100psi. Large air compressors used in industrial settings typically run at air pressures of 150psi and beyond.
Injuries to the eyes are common when coupled with the incorrect use of compressed air and failure to use eye protection.
With hearing damage occurring at 85 decibels, there is a risk of hearing problems, which may not become evident until later in life.
If compressed air enters the human body through, for example, the mouth or navel or other body opening, it is capable of rupturing the digestive tract and causing internal bleeding, a dangerous medical condition.
What should I use instead of compressed air for cleaning purposes?
There are many excellent, safe options on the market that provide a cost-effective alternative and are quieter and cheaper to run than blow-off using compressed air. These are blower-driven systems delivering air a low pressure at safety cleaning stations, which present less danger to people or equipment.
For applications where airborne dust may be harmful, body safety cleaning booths or a full body cleaning booth offer a practical and safe alternative.
Compressed air is a vital service for industry, but must be installed and maintained correctly to ensure safety in operation. Why not consider a compressed air audit? It will highlight the efficiency of your equipment and provide you with advice and guidance on safety procedures, reducing the potential for workplace accidents caused by compressed air.