Plant & Works Engineering
Compressed air use: Putting safety first
Published:  09 February, 2018

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. He outlines the safety responsibilities of the equipment manufacturer and all involved in the supply chain and examines whether the picture has changed from the past to mitigate any of these risk factors.

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.

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). 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.

Safety training and responsibility

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.

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. The supply organisation’s major aftercare role, if a service contract has been taken out by the end users, is to assure safe operation of equipment through scheduled inspection and condition monitoring programmes.

A compressor systems manufacturer who 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. 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 focussing on safety can positively impact on productivity and profitability. In keeping with this, companies are advised to partner with compressed air equipment manufacturers who have integrated a QSHE culture within their own processes, from product development to manufacturing to field service.

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.