Compressed air is powerful and can be dangerous—even deadly—when misused. Air compressors aren’t designed for cleaning, but it’s still common practice to clean the dust and debris from filters, machinery, workshop surfaces, clothes, and so forth using compressed air.
Before reaching for that air hose again, read this article to learn the risks to you and the people around you.
Dangerous Projectiles Caused By Compressed Air
Compressed air, especially from commercial air compressors, can exert extremely high forces that turn small particles, nuts, bolts, washers, and other bits into high-velocity projectiles. These objects essentially become shrapnel and can cause severe damage if they hit someone. Even dust and dirt will cause skin abrasions when there is sufficient force behind them—it’s just like sandblasting.
But even without projectile objects, compressed air can cause serious damage on its own.
How Compressed Air Damages The Human Body
There are many ways that compressed air can damage the human body. Whenever compressed air enters or contacts your body, you are putting yourself at risk of significant health complications.
Here are a few examples of the dangers of compressed air:
- Compressed air accidentally blown into the mouth can rupture the lungs, stomach, or intestines
- The high decibel sound of compressed air blown in or near the ears can cause permanent hearing loss
- 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.
Anyone familiar with compressed air used for scuba diving also knows about the potential for air embolisms. Embolisms are 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 incorrect diving procedures are the most common cause of air embolisms, there is also a risk of embolism when compressed air is misused at high pressures. Although unlikely, high-pressure air could be forced into the bloodstream through cuts and abrasions. It is improbable, but why even take the risk?
All the health risks outlined above are easily preventable: don’t use compressed air to clean.
Is It Illegal To Clean With Compressed Air?
There are laws in Canada and the United States that govern compressed air, and in many cases, it is illegal to clean with compressed air.
In the United States, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates workplace safety. Compressed air use is governed by standard 1910.242.b, which states, “Compressed air shall not be used for cleaning purposes except where reduced to less than 30 psi (206 kPa) and then only with effective chip guarding and personal protective equipment.”
In Canada, cleaning with compressed air is not allowed by law, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS). Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island have specific laws that compressed air must not be used to clean clothes, people, machinery, work benches, and so forth.
Federal regulations in British Columbia, Northwest 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 states, provinces and countries, other legislation may be applicable, so you should always check your local jurisdiction for relevant information. When in doubt, simply use your common sense and do not use compressed air for cleaning!
PPE & Safe Practices For Cleaning With Compressed Air
If you are in a jurisdiction that allows cleaning with compressed air, or if you’re going to ignore the rules and do it anyway, it’s important to take these additional precautions to stay safe:
- Turn down the pressure on your air compressor to 30 psi or less. This will reduce the risk of injury.
- Use effective guarding to protect yourself and those around you from chips and other debris that can blow back.
- Wear the appropriate PPE, which includes safety goggles, gloves, and hearing protection. Long-sleeve pants and shirts are also a good idea.
- Never point the air nozzle at yourself or anyone else. Similarly, do not clean the clothes you are wearing with compressed air.
To learn more about cleaning safely with compressed air, check out this fact sheet from Oregon OSHA.