Regulated by OSHA, compressed air is still used for cleaning off clothing and parts of the body – but is it really safe?

When production and factory personnel are at work, it can often be tempting for them to find the easiest, or in their opinion, the fastest way of doing certain things. This is all well and good, but shortcuts can lead to individuals and companies running into major problems, and even falling foul of regulations that may be in place.

One example of how OSHA regulations can be severely compromised is demonstrated when workers may choose to use a compressed air gun/nozzle to remove dust and debris from clothing and/or exposed skin. Compressed air tools are of course commonplace on factory floors, and to workers a compressed air gun may be the quickest and most convenient method of cleaning themselves down. However, the reality is that he/she may be creating a noncompliance, but more significantly, a potentially dangerous situation.

Many companies will have written safe work procedures that outline how to perform a task with minimum risk to people, equipment, materials, environment and processes. Because of this most employees are well-aware that using compressed air nozzles to remove debris from clothes is a hazardous habit. However, despite this lots of workplace injuries still happen because of the misuse horseplay, and no matter how innocently it might start, it can end with disastrous consequences. It may be amusing to direct a jet of air at a co-worker, but these tools produce enough pressure to cause a severe internal injury such as embolisms which can be fatal. 

If employers are going to allow their workforce to use compressed air in the workplace, it is vital that they understand the appropriate regulations and to be aware of alternative technologies that can further reduce or eliminate the dangers.

To acquire further understandings of what is safe and approved for clean down operations, Nick Wakley, ACI’s Health & Safety Officer answers some commonly asked questions.

Q. What is your interpretation of the OSHA regulation regarding the use of compressed air for cleaning purposes?

NW: The main points to take from the OSHA regulation (29 CFR1910.242(b)) are as follows:

  • Output Pressure:
    Factory air lines normally operate between 80 psi and 120 psi. Most pneumatic tools, including air guns, need high pressures to operate effectively. OSHA requires that when an air gun is dead ended (the tip of an air gun is blocked), the static pressure at the point of blockage is no more than 30 psi.
  • Chip Guarding:
    Whenever blowing off debris with a compressed air gun/nozzle, under certain conditions workers can be subjected to chip fly-back. This term refers to the tendency of loose particles or chips to fly back into the operator’s face, eyes or skin. For an operation that requires this type of close-in work, OSHA requires that effective chip guarding be incorporated into the workplace.
  • Noise:
    Excessive noise generated in the workplace can be harmful and compressed air gun/nozzles can contribute to high levels of occupational noise. Every precaution should be taken to reduce this.

Q: Where are the OSHA regulations applied and are there any other regulations that apply to this issue?

NW: The US only is officially regulated by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), although from my experience more and more companies outside of the US are using OSHA for their own guidelines. SUVA is a Swiss body which has issued similar recommendations and rules.

Q: If there was one message or action you would take from the OSHA regulations for compressed air, what would it be?

NWA: Although it states you should reduce the pressure of your compressed air lines to less than 30PSI, there is plenty of proof that even running lines at less than 5-10PSI can still cause injury if used on exposed skin. For my own point of view, I prefer to be completely sure everyone is safe and follow the simple rule that under no circumstances should employees use compressed air for clean off clothing or skin. If your employees need to clean themselves down, find a safer alternative solution.

Q: What exactly are the hazards of using compressed air?

NWA: Compressed air is not just ordinary air and it needs to be respected. Compressed air is a concentrated stream of air at high pressure and high velocity that can cause serious injury to the operator and even the people around him/her. Playing with compressed air can be fatal:

  • A misdirected jet of compressed air to the head can cause serious eye injuries or rupture the eardrum.
  • Aiming the compressed air into the mouth can damage the lungs and oesophagus.
  • Careless use of it to blow away dirt or dust from the body, even with a protective layer of clothes, could allow the air to enter the body, which can damage the internal organs.
  • The most serious damage that can be caused by it occurs when air is blown in under the skin, for example via an open wound. This can lead to an embolism, in which air bubbles are pressed into the veins and transported along the bloodstream. If the air bubble reaches the heart it causes symptoms similar to a heart attack. If the bubble reaches the brain, it can cause a stroke which can be fatal.
  • Finally, since compressed air usually contains small amounts of oil or dirt, severe infections can also occur if the compressed air enters the body.

Q: If cleaning down with compressed air guns & nozzles going to continue, what safe measures can be taken?

NWA: Firstly, if you are going to allow compressed air to be used for cleaning processed, some measures that might be taken, include:

  • Never point an air hose or air gun at anyone, either for fun or to blow away dirt from clothes or the body.
  • Never point at exposed human skin.
  • Always use personal protective equipment, such as goggles, when cleaning with compressed air.
  • Check the air hoses regularly for damage or leakage and remove any leaking hose immediately. A hose that breaks under pressure will come loose and wave around completely uncontrolled.
  • Avoid allowing air hoses to lie on the floor where someone can trip over them, or where they can be damaged by vehicles, doors or tools. If possible, pull the air lines and hoses at ceiling height.
  • Remember to always treat compressed air and related components as professional tools – something that facilitates your work, but only if handled properly and safely.

Q: If you are looking to remove the use of compressed air guns & nozzles in your workplace for cleaning purposes, are there any safe alternatives?

NWA: Vacuums cleaners are a viable alternative for self-cleaning, however, they can be rather clumsy and the process of removing dust from clothing can be time consuming. This is clearly demonstrated in the following video:

Another option that eliminates all risks and facilitates de-dusting and cleaning of personnel
is called the ‘JetBlack’. This is a blower powered (1400 watts) solution that removes dust and
debris from clothing or skin using high volumes of air at low pressure. It operates at less
than 2.53PSI (70In.SWG) and can be directed safely at exposed skin with no risk of harm at
all. Its’s quite safe for all personnel cleaning requirements.
The unit also offers users the advantage of being much quieter with noise output being less
than 78dB(A). This is significantly quieter than compressed air and well below the level of
85dB(A) level that can lead to hearing loss.

Q: Is ACI’s JetBlack OSHA compliant?

NWA: There are two versions of the ACI JetBlack. One is a wall mounted unit intended for fixed cleaning stations to be used by personnel, and the other is a portable unit ideal for cleaning and removal of debris/dust from machinery or workspaces. Both are OSHA compliant as they are fitted with a chip guard, and operate at a low pressure.

Q: What happens when the dust is removed using a JetBlack?

NWA: Any dust or contaminant removed/blown off from clothing using a JetBlack will be airborne. Although this is not ideal, the JetBlack was designed to simply replace all compressed air nozzles and guns for removing dust from personnel quickly and effectively.

If the removed dust particles do need to be extracted, ACI offer the Personnel Cleaning Booth which is a self-contained, free-standing dedusting system. This is a highly effective unit for removing, extracting and collecting dust and debris from employee’s dirty work clothes.

The Cleaning Booth incorporates the company’s blower-powered JetBlack personnel dedusting system and delivers a high volumes of filtered air at low pressure, sufficient to remove powders and dust effectively and safely. In operation, the integrated JetBlack is used by Booth occupants to dislodge all dust and fibres. These are then drawn down and away from occupants through a grille floor by a vacuum effect created by an external blower.