Although it’s a very bad practice to use compressed air for cleaning dust and debris from machinery, workshop surfaces and clothes etc., it is a common practice. However, before you reach for that air tool again you may want to take a couple of seconds to weigh up the risks and the potential for harm to yourself and others that may be in the vicinity.
Compressed air, especially from commercial compressors, can exert extremely high forces and can turn small particles, nuts, bolts, washers etc., into high velocity projectiles. Even dust and dirt can cause skin abrasions when there is sufficient force behind them, it’s akin to sand blasting. The effect on your eyes could be more serious. Blowing air in or around your ears can also cause serious damage as the airstream can easily generate noise levels in excess of safety limits. Add all that to the respiratory hazard that airborne dust can cause, which is always found in these circumstances, and you may want to think again!
As compressed air itself is a hazard, there is also the potential for more serious injuries. Anyone familiar with compressed air used for scuba diving knows about the potential for air embolisms. This is a condition where air bubbles enter the bloodstream and block blood vessels or arteries, with the potential to cause paralysis, induce a coma or even cause death. While air embolisms are mostly caused by incorrect diving procedures, there is also a risk when compressed air is used incorrectly at high pressures. Although very unlikely, high-pressure air can be forced into the bloodstream through cuts and abrasions and although this may be improbable, why take the risk?
- Compressed air accidentally blown into the mouth can rupture the lungs, stomach or intestines
- Compressed air can enter the navel, even through a layer of clothing, and inflate and rupture the intestines
- Compressed air can enter the bloodstream, and death is possible if it makes its way to blood vessels in the brain
- As little as 12 pounds of compressed air pressure can blow an eye out of its socket.
In the United States, workplace safety is regulated by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. Compressed air use is governed by 1910.242.b, which says that air pressure in direct contact with the skin cannot exceed 210 kPa (30 psi).
In Canada, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), cleaning with compressed air is not allowed by law. Alberta, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and Saskatchewan specifically mention that compressed air shall not be used to clean clothes, people, machinery, work benches, etc. Federal regulations in Ontario, British Columbia, North West Territories, Nunavut, and the Yukon ban cleaning with air due to the risk to workers, although there is some provision for using low noise emitting nozzles with pressures below 10 psi (70 kPa). In some cases, other legislation may be applicable, you should always check your local jurisdiction for relevant information.
The bottom line ……. Do not use compressed air for cleaning!
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