As a vital contributor to productivity in the 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’s 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 UK’s trade and technical association 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,” explains Steve Matthews, QSHE manager UK & Ireland at Atlas Copco. “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 several 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. Equally dangerous, a 3 bar(g) air stream near the eardrum has been known to cause a brain haemorrhage.
Compressed air systems: the legal requirements
What must 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 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, because 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.
“The duties imposed by PSSR relate to pressure systems for use at work and the risk to health/safety, and its regulations stipulate that a competent and experienced engineer should certify a Written Scheme of Examination (WSE),” Matthews says. “The in-house competent person should be independent from the operating functions of the organisation and they must have sufficient authority to stop the use of the pressure equipment, should the need arise. At all times, it remains the user/owner’s responsibility to ensure compliance with the PSSR.
“However, Schedule 2 of the regulations allows a supplier of an installed system to assume responsibility in writing for the WSE, the operation, the maintenance and the record keeping. In this role, it is seen as the supplier’s duty to advise users of their legal obligations and, in many cases, providing a WSE is an intrinsic part of the manufacturer’s aftermarket offering when it incorporates a total responsibility service plan.”
There are further regulations that apply to the operation of compressed air systems and associated tools, namely the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER). These require equipment to be suitable for intended use, safe to use, maintained in a safe condition, inspected for correct installation, and used only by people who have received adequate information, instruction and training. However, unlike PSSR, compliance with PUWER is not mandatory.
While the appropriate level of operator supervision is an obvious remedy to mitigate unnecessary risk, all of these personally hazardous situations in the workplace can be prevented by a combination of correct installation, appropriate safety training, regular planned maintenance and monitoring schedules to ensure equipment is in the optimum operational condition.
“Although it can be argued that end-user management should be responsible for operator safety training, there
is an implicit obligation of responsibility within the manufacturer’s supply chain and service management to take the initiative for implementation of these measures,” Matthews adds. “This obligation is addressed fully by the leading manufacturers of compressed air systems and their authorised distributors.
“Every effort is made to promote a positive safety culture that ensures their own employees are skilled and competent towards health and safety issues and focused on reminding their customers of the legal obligations, innovations and improvement opportunities towards compressed air safety within their operation.
“For a supply organisation, their major after-care role will come if a service contract has been taken out by the end users. The supplier’s job is to assure safe operation of equipment through scheduled inspection and condition monitoring programmes.”
A compressor systems manufacturer that is ahead of the game should be able to provide its customers with the expertise of field service engineers. Ideally, they should have the benefit of at least 20-30 hours of annual safety training and be ready to provide advice on any safety issues affecting all types of pressure equipment that may be installed on site.
Maintenance and system audits
It is a given that compressors and associated equipment should be installed and maintained correctly to ensure safe operation. System energy audits play a major role in identifying health and safety risks from the operation of below-standard installations.
“Incorrectly specified equipment, air leaks, poorly sized and installed pipework with long runs, excessive bends and fittings can all pose a health and safety risk,” Matthews adds. “To help identify these potential hazards, responsible compressor systems manufacturers and suppliers offer their company’s individual compressed air system surveys, audits and recommendations within their service operations. Within recent times, that approach has now been rationalised. With the implementation of the approved European Standard EN ISO 11011, it is now possible for them to offer safety advice, together with standardised assessment, surveys and recommendations, on a level playing field with other suppliers.”
What else can be done to improve safety?
It is true to say that, despite the best efforts of equipment suppliers, the official guidance and the stringent legal requirements that are in place, there remains concern that there are still too many cases of compressed air systems being operated without consideration of regulations, a disregard that is not only dangerous, but clearly illegal. Unfortunately, realisation of the need for compliance sometimes results after a safety event and the harsh reality of an insurance claim.
“Hopefully, more users will realise that focusing on safety can positively impact on productivity and profitability,” Matthews says. “In keeping with this, companies are advised to partner with compressed air equipment manufacturers that have integrated an end-to-end Quality, Safety, Health and Environment (QSHE) culture within their own processes.”
Continued product developments mean that compressor systems offer constant safety improvements, measures that have increased dramatically over the past decade, culminating with smart technology that can detect anomalies before they occur. In the drive to achieve the levels of product quality, performance, energy efficiency and sustainability demanded by today’s industrial economy, leading manufacturers respond by offering improved equipment features, including the safety characteristics, of all vital components.
With the increasing adoption of IoT (Internet of Things) connectivity principles, more and more compressed air systems are now collecting and providing live performance data about running temperatures and pressures. This information enables field engineers to maintain a pro-active dialogue with equipment users and to identify any potential problems that can be eliminated to ensure optimum on-site safety – knowledge that can ultimately be incorporated within future product design developments.
Although individual supplier organisations may operate a highly integrated safety reporting and action follow-up system, at present there are no formal accreditation schemes for designing, installing and maintaining a compressed air system. Maybe this is an area of concern that the compressed air industry at large should address. Meanwhile, a concerted effort to educate and encourage safety culture at the point of use should be viewed as a priority by all concerned.
10 steps to compresses air safety
More companies are finding that, to be competitive in the global economy, they need to do more with less. However, when budgets and schedules are tight, safety might not be the first priority.
Here are 10 health & safety tips from the BCAS (British Compressed Air Society) that end users should consider throughout the lifecycle of their compressed air systems.
1 Designed to be safe: Air compressors, their components and accessories need to meet several design codes and standards; machines need to be clearly CE marked and vendors should be able to provide full documentation on compliance. Proper design prevents accidental exposure to moving parts, live voltage, high pressure or chemicals that could cause injury and, as a consequence, downtime.
2 Safe access: End users often have only limited space available to place an air compressor, yet a machine that is difficult, unsafe or impossible to access can cause serious disruption in the future when routine or unplanned maintenance is needed.
3 Experienced installation team: An experienced and reliable provider will design, install and commission an air compressor and its associated civil work, piping etc with the selection of the most suitable materials, safety and bleed valves, that will prevent future leaks and other undesired events that could result in injury to customer staff or downtime.
4 Trained service staff: Air compressor service personnel who are regularly trained on, understand, comply with and own safety procedures are proven not only to get less frequently injured, but also deliver a work in higher quality and greater efficiency, resulting in a more reliable compressed air system.
5 Personal Protective Equipment: Service personnel deployed to the end user wearing PPE are probably the best indicator that the compressed air system provider handles all other aspects of its business with the same due care.
6 Lockout of hazardous energy sources: Before any work, routine or unplanned, is initiated on a compressor, all energy sources (compressed air, electricity and, in some cases, water) should be isolated. With this important step, the vast majority of maintenance-related disruption to other operations and injuries can be prevented.
7 Electrical safety: Air compressors can often be running on up to 600-700 volts, which means special care needs to be taken from design, through installation to maintenance. A major risk of compressed air service activities is Arc Flash; the risk of this extremely high temperature electrical flash can be mitigated, if service personnel follow a rigorous safety procedure and are dressed in the correct protective clothing.
8 Delivery efficiency: Compressed air system providers with a dedicated, maintained and regularly inspected fleet will arrive in time and will deliver the products in time – thereby not just saving the customer money, but also keeping the process lean.
9 Regular maintenance: To ensure the safe operation of an air compressor, regular maintenance intervals should be kept, even if the machine is up and running without any issues. A well-scheduled visit from the service provider will also prevent or minimise disruption to connecting plant operations. As an alternative, the investment of a backup unit can also be considered. This is particularly important where compressed air is critical to the plant’s production processes and where any loss of air would cause expensive downtime.
10 Sustainable operation: Air compressors with an extended product life, lower energy consumption and longer maintenance periods will certainly act positively on mid- and long-term capital and operational expenditure, but also result in less waste generated from the replacement of fluids, filters and other consumable parts for a more sustainable operation.