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The need to put safety first

20 July 2016

The misuse of compressed air through poorly designed equipment, complacency or at worse, a bit of misdirected horseplay could well result in serious injury or even a fatality. BCAS outlines the potential risk and reviews the legislation to ensure that you remain compliant


To be clear, compressed air is a highly concentrated stream of air at high pressure and speed, which can cause serious injury to the operator and the people in close proximity. This release of energy can be unintended (equipment failure), or caused by the operator mishandling this resource – for example, using blow guns to clean clothing and surfaces, or even as a result of horseplay.

Unfortunately, the latter has been a cause of some serious workplace accidents caused by individuals not aware of the hazards of compressed air, or a lack of proper work procedures. Complacency can also be very real problem, and it is therefore worth reiterating the potential outcomes of exposure to compressed air:

•  Compressed air accidentally blown into the mouth can rupture the lungs, stomach or intestines

•  Compressed air can enter the navel, even through a layer of clothing, and inflate and rupture the intestines

•  Compressed air can enter the bloodstream through the skin, and death is possible if it makes its way to blood vessels in the brain

•  Direct contact with compressed air can lead to serious medical conditions and even death

•  Even safety nozzles which regulate compressed air pressure below 30 psi should not be used to clean the human body

As little as one bar of compressed air pressure can blow an eye out of its socket.

If an air pocket reaches the heart, it causes symptoms similar to a heart attack. Upon reaching the brain, pockets of air may lead to a stroke.

Clearly all of the above can be mitigated by the provision of appropriate training and by ensuring that the equipment is suitably maintained and correctly operated at all times.   

The main legislation covering this area is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 covering occupational health and safety in Great Britain, with the Health and Safety Executive, local authorities and other enforcing authorities responsible for enforcing it.

In addition, the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER) also applies for the operation of compressed air systems and associated tools.  

PUWER requires that equipment provided for use at work is:

•  Suitable for the intended use

•  Safe for use, maintained in a safe condition and inspected to ensure it is correctly installed and does not subsequently deteriorate

•  Used only by people who have received adequate information, instruction and training

•  Accompanied by suitable health and safety measures, such as protective devices and controls. These will normally include emergency stop devices, adequate means of isolation from sources of energy, clearly visible markings and warning devices

•  Used in accordance with specific requirements, for mobile work equipment and power presses

For compressed air you should also be aware that pressure equipment must meet the Pressure Systems Safety Regulations (see the ‘Pressure On' article in this issue) and that protective equipment must meet the PPE regulations.

Compliance with the PUWER regulations is not mandatory and you are free to take other action. But if you do follow the guidance you will normally be doing enough to comply with the law. Health and Safety inspectors seek to secure compliance with the law and may refer to this guidance as illustrating good practice.

Clearly the way forward is to instigate good practice by the application of the HSAW and PUWER regulations.  

In times of financial constraint, it might be tempting to make short term cost savings by cutting back on training, or by purchasing inferior tools or reducing maintenance.  The risks in failing to ensure a safe working environment in terms of human suffering, lost production, reputation, legal fees and even criminal conviction must outweigh such temptations.