3 July, 2020

Putting safety first

08 December, 2017

Steve Matthews, QSHE manager UK & Ireland, Atlas Copco, looks at the potential hazards involved in compressed air use and asks how aware is industrial management of the preventative measures that can be taken, the scope of current pressure regulations and the legal obligations of compliance.

As a vital contributor to productivity in the manufacturing and industrial landscape, compressed air is as essential to many process operations as electrical energy. However, the misuse of either utility in the workplace can pose a threat of serious or even fatal consequences. From the compressed air user perspective, poorly designed and installed equipment, lack of hazard awareness, neglect of regulations and disregard of safety procedures all contribute to potential risk to people, productivity and profit.

Since when was air dangerous?

To quote statistics published by the British Compressed Air Society (BCAS), each year in Great Britain there are on average 150 dangerous occurrences of which about six result in fatal or serious injury.

Direct contact with compressed air can lead to serious medical conditions. The accidental release of high pressure air, resulting from equipment failure, or the use of air supply equipment in the wrong, untrained or unaware hands, can have potentially fatal consequences.

There are a number of serious air hazard scenarios that apply throughout industry, often the result of the misuse of blowguns. For instance, as little as 1 bar(g) of compressed air pressure can blow an eye out of its socket. Compressed air can also enter the bloodstream through the skin and, if it makes its way to blood vessels and the heart, create symptoms similar to a heart attack.

Furthermore, an air pocket reaching the brain can lead to a stroke or prove fatal. Additionally, if compressed air is accidentally blown into the mouth it can rupture the lungs, stomach, and intestines. Even at a pressure as low as 0.25 bar(g), air entering the navel, even through a layer of clothing, can also inflate and rupture the intestines. Just as dangerous, a 3 bar(g) air stream in the vicinity of the eardrum can cause a brain haemorrhage.

Compressed air systems: the legal requirements

What has to be emphasised is that many compressed air users may not fully realise that the operation of a compressed air system is subject to legal requirements.

In its advisory role, BCAS, the UK’s trade and technical association, makes it clear that the user of installed compressed air plant or the owner of mobile compressor equipment is subject to the legal requirements of the Pressure Systems Safety Regulations S.I. 2000 No 168 (PSSR), a statutory instrument for the ‘in-service’ use of pressure equipment.

The aim of these Regulations is to prevent serious injury from the hazard of stored energy as a result of the failure of a pressure system or one of its component parts. Any breach of these regulations comes under the jurisdiction of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. This main legislation covers occupational health and safety in Great Britain with the Health and Safety Executive, local authorities, and others responsible for enforcing it.

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