Compressed air is incredibly powerful and can be dangerous—even deadly—when used improperly. 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 you reach for that air tool again, read this article to learn the risks and discover the harm you can cause to yourself and others in the vicinity.
Dangerous Projectiles Caused By Compressed Air
Compressed air, especially from commercial compressors, can exert extremely high forces that can turn small particles, nuts, bolts, washers and other bits into high velocity projectiles. These objects essentially become shrapnel and can cause serious 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 you can damage the human body using compressed air. Any time compressed air enters or comes in contact with your body, there are significant health risks.
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. 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 of embolism when compressed air is used incorrectly at high pressures. Although very unlikely, high-pressure air can also be forced into the bloodstream through cuts and abrasions. It is improbable but why even take the risk?
All of the health risks outlined above are easily preventable; simply 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 the use of compressed air, and in many cases, it is illegal to clean with compressed air.
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 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, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), cleaning with compressed air is not allowed by law. Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec, 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, 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 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!