Compressed air systems and air compressors are vital across a wide range of industries and applications. Compressed air is a crucial energy and power source for numerous types of machinery, tools and equipment, including inflating vehicle tyres.
However, if unsupervised, compressed air dryers and similar systems can present a variety of significant health and safety risks for operators, increasing the risk of accidents. Therefore, good working practices are needed to ensure that teams and personnel in the workplace can handle such a system properly and mitigate all known risks to them and their colleagues.
This short article outlines the common uses and dangers of commercial compressed air systems and provides guidance on operating them safely as per HSE (Health and Safety Executive) recommendations.
Common Uses of Compressed Air Systems
Compressed air dryers encompass various products, including desiccant and refrigerant dryers with pre- and after-air filters, from a collection of known brands like KAESER. The premise of air compressors is simple; they work to remove potentially hazardous contaminants from the air and distribute cleaner, dryer air in a given environment.
However, compressed air systems can also include a variety of systems that distribute air at high velocities. In such situations (such as the below examples), the air is condensed into a small, confined space, and powered through an exit point at high pressure.
So where are air compressors typically used?
- Power tools and equipment – Impact wrenches, ratchets, drills, sanders, spray paint guns and more rely on compressed air. Compressors provide a convenient, portable power source.
- Blowing and cleaning – Compressed air blowers and tools are used to blow debris and dust off surfaces or hard-to-reach areas. Commercial leaf blowers and crop sprayers are common examples of tools requiring compressed air.
- Inflating tyres – From bikes to cars to forklifts, compressors enable rapid, controlled inflation with an adjustable pressure output.
- Aeration and agitation – Bubbling compressed air through liquids mixes and aerates them, with applications ranging from wastewater treatment to beverage carbonation.
- Manufacturing and packaging – From the manufacturing processes of pharmaceuticals to food packets, compressed air is used at virtually every stage in a supply chain.
Common Compressed Air Hazards
It often surprises people how everyday processes and products require compressed air. In a commercial setting, however, air compressors often operate at high speeds with air distributed at considerable force in order to perform tasks.
Mishandling compressed air systems in a commercial environment carries multiple safety risks, including (but not limited to):
- Compressed air applied directly onto body parts can cause substantial skin and tissue damage. The more forceful the air is, the more severe the potential damage is.
- Over-inflating tyres or containers can cause explosions and excessive damage.
- The high-decibel noise from compressors and discharge air can cause hearing damage to those who are subject to prolonged exposure.
Air Quality Hazards
- While the intent of air dryers is to distribute clean air, sometimes being in the direct line of distributed air can cause eye injuries and irritation.
- Humidity allows moisture and corrosion to build up within pipes and equipment.
- Hoses can whip dangerously if couplings disconnect while under pressure.
- Loose connections, nozzles, or dead-ended lines can discharge air tools or debris unexpectedly.
- Workers can be prone to decompression sickness (an acute joint pain condition) if working frequently with compressed air.
- Barotrauma and dysbaric osteonecrosis can cause long-term damage to the body, which can result from overexposure to compressed, high-pressure air.
Asking the Right Safety Questions About Compressed Air
Utilising compressed air systems in the workplace requires addressing the above health and safety risks proactively and diligently. It also requires deploying relevant safety planning, training, and upskilling where necessary for all team members who may be expected to work alongside air systems that could pose serious risks to their well-being.
Facility managers and decision-makers should, therefore, address these key questions before and during deployment:
- Is the compressor system intake likely to be contaminated?
Compressors should always draw uncontaminated air, and therefore be situated away from sources like vehicle exhausts, emissions, and fumes. Air filters should always be regularly inspected and replaced where necessary.
- Are air receivers, piping, and fittings periodically inspected?
The compressed air system should adhere to a scheduled inspection, testing, and maintenance routine based on factors like the expected daily operational cycle and pressure level. Inspections will help identify wear, leaks, or damage like corrosion, cracks, or loose connections, and reduce the risk of malfunctions, injuries, or fires.
- Are gauges, safety valves, and alarms included and functional?
These devices monitor and control pressures in the system and at the point of use. If included, ensure that all components are rated and function as intended. If not, consider consulting with the device manufacturer for replacements to ensure long-term, compliant safety.
- Are water separators and filters implemented where needed?
Condensation is expected in humid and moisture-heavy environments. The points at which the machine suffers condensation should allow for the safe drainage or evaporation of moisture before it affects critical systems like the motor and electrics. Filters and separators can mitigate the buildup of excessive moisture.
- Is the right PPE (personal protective equipment) provided for the use of the specific compressor?
Air compressors are powerful machines, which is why wearing the correct, up-to-date PPE and keeping the compressor tank well-maintained and in good working order will substantially minimise injuries and risks.
- Are employees sufficiently trained about compressed air hazards and procedures before use?
Deploying clear signage and instructions and providing essential training for all staff will be pivotal. Compressed air is generally viewed as safe, but this only remains constant if good working and usage practices are adopted from the outset. Train all staff on the safest and most effective use of the specific machine in any facility, and address knowledge gaps proactively.
Best Practices for Compressed Air Systems
By asking these key questions and implementing appropriate equipment, maintenance, and training around compressed air systems, businesses can mitigate the serious risks introduced by harnessing the power and force of pressurised air.
Compressed air is a vital service, but must be installed and maintained appropriately and regularly to ensure long-term safety.
It’s important to remember that there are no specific UK laws relating to the use of compressed air, at least for cleaning or maintenance purposes. Therefore, it’s wise to consult HSE guidance, as well as recommendations outlined by the British Compressed Air Society to ensure that your application is as safe as can be.