Plant & Works Engineering
Improving compressed air performance and safety through training
Published:  24 February, 2014

Compressed air is often considered to be the industrial sector’s fourth utility, yet despite the wide scope of its use there is no formal training or accreditation requirement for operatives to ensure it is safely used and maintained. Here, Andy Jones general manager at Mattei, looks at why compressed air training is important, the voluntary schemes available and what can be done to improve the safety and performance of this essential equipment.

Workplace safety is of the utmost importance and it is paramount that employers protect and prepare workers for the risks they face. If a worker uses electricity or gas as part of their job, the dangers are well publicised and proper training is given to ensure any risk is minimised. However, working with compressed air is largely overlooked as a risk factor and without mandatory training provisions in place; it can easily slip under the health and safety radar.

In reality, employees need greater awareness of the dangers of compressed air and be better informed as to how it should be used correctly. We still hear of workers using compressed air to dust off machinery, work benches and even their clothes yet they don’t always understand the potential consequences. For example, if the compressed air penetrated the skin and entered the blood stream, an air bubble could reach the heart or lungs, with fatal consequences. Equally, due to the speed at which compressed air travels, it could also lead to blindness or loss of hearing if it comes into contact with the eyes or ears.

It’s not just operators who need to have adequate training and a detailed understanding of the apparatus they are dealing with. Like other pieces of industrial equipment, a compressor needs to be installed and maintained properly to ensure it operates safely. In very extreme cases a poorly maintained compressor could even catch fire or explode. Noise levels should also be checked regularly to ensure workers aren’t adversely affected.

In fact, inspections should be carried out in accordance with the Written Scheme of Examination, a legal requirement of Systems Safety Regulations 2000. The Written Scheme of Examination is a document containing a range of information, including the parts of the system that need to be checked, the nature of the examination required, preparatory work needed and the schedule for regular checks. Many compressed air users are unaware – or ignore – these requirements despite fines of up to £20,000 for non-compliance as the regulations are not actively policed.

Despite the potential risks of working with compressed air, there are currently no formal training programmes or accreditation schemes for operators, or service engineers installing and maintaining compressed air systems. This means that some users could be incorrectly operating and servicing their equipment and workplace safety could be being compromised.

In the absence of a recognised mandatory training curriculum, the British Compressed Air Society (BCAS) offers four courses which can be completed voluntarily. BCAS leads the UK and Europe in specialist compressed air training, education and compressed air management and its courses can be flexibly delivered via distance learning, e-learning, face to face sessions or bespoke workshops.

For operators using compressed air and hand held air tools, such as blow guns, BCAS offers ‘Safe Working With Compressed Air’ – a one hour online course developed in conjunction with safety practitioners to ensure best practice when using compressed air in the workplace. The tuition covers practical advice for safe working including information on hazards from air tools such as noise, vibration and fumes, as well as the use of Personal Protective Equipment.

For those who require a basic understanding of the principles of compressed air production and the components of a compressed air system as well as information about safe working practice, BCAS offers the more advanced Certificate In Compressed Air System Technology (CertCAST) which can also be completed online. There are 10 modules to study, covering topics from the science and properties of air, suitable applications and distribution of compressed air, to appropriate controls, air treatment and equipment maintenance.

Service engineers who are required to maintain compressed air systems, and are responsible for the Written Scheme of Examination, may be suitable for BCAS Competent Examiner course. This five-day programme of study provides knowledge-based and practical testing techniques to check compressed air equipment within regulatory guidelines. Successful candidates will receive a BCAS certificate in compressed air system testing and examination, on completion.

To enrol on the Competent Examiner course, applicants should have a good engineering background (minimum eight years), a working knowledge of mathematics and science and at least four years’ work experience in Compressed Air Engineering. If outsourcing maintenance of compressed air equipment, it may be prudent to check whether the contractor has achieved this standard as it represents a strong understanding of the industry and the principles involved in ensuring optimum performance from compressed air systems.

For those with experience in the compressed air industry, a broad knowledge of compressed air technology and in a position of responsibility within their company, a Diploma in Compressed Air Management (DipCAM) is also available from BCAS. This is a formal recognition of skills and knowledge in the field.

While the BCAS learning programmes are a step in the right direction towards improving the safety and performance of compressed air systems, we would like to see an official accreditation scheme introduced for operators, service engineers, and those involved in system design and installation. This way, only people with proven competence could install, use and maintain compressed air systems, in the same way as only Gas Safe registered installers are qualified to work with gas.

By introducing a universal and compulsory scheme we can really make significant inroads into improving the efficiency, performance and safety of compressed air in commercial settings.

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