Compressed Air

Should compressed air be used for cleaning purposes? 
No. Using compressed air to clean objects, machinery, debris from bench tops or clothes is extremely dangerous. Injuries can be caused by the air jet and by particles made airborne. However, this practice still occurs in some workplaces because of the easy availability of compressed air and old habits.

What are the hazards of using compressed air?
First, compressed air is extremely forceful. Depending on its pressure, compressed air can dislodge particles. These particles are a danger since they can enter a worker's eyes or damage skin. The potential damage depends on the size, weight, shape, composition, and speed of the particles. The pressure and sound of compressed air can also cause hearing damage.

Second, compressed air itself is also a serious hazard. Compressed air can enter the blood stream through a break in the skin or through a body opening. An air bubble in the blood stream, known as an embolism, is a dangerous medical condition in which a blood vessel is blocked, in this case, by an air bubble. An embolism of an artery can cause coma, paralysis or death depending on its size, duration and location. While air embolisms are usually associated with incorrect diving procedures, they can be caused by compressed air due to high pressures. While the chances of this occurring are small, the consequences of even a small quantity of air or other gas in the blood can quickly be fatal.

And thirdly, the use of compressed air often creates a noise hazard. Sources of compressed air noise include the compressor itself and the air turbulence or shearing noise generated when compressed air comes out of an open nozzle or is suddenly exhausted through pneumatic valves or tools at high speed. The noise may be continuous, intermittent or impulsive.

Unfortunately, some serious workplace incidents have been the result of individuals not having been informed of the hazards of compressed air, or the lack of proper work procedures. OHS reps should make sure that the employer has implemented proper work procedures and trained all workers in these procedures. The employer also needs to ensure that the level of noise is being monitored, and if the exposure standard is close to being exceeded, remove or modify the equipment. WorkSafe Victoria has guidance on Noise Control – Compressed air noise [pdf].

What should be used instead of compressed air for cleaning purposes?
A brush or a vacuum cleaner should be used instead.

If compressed air must be used for cleaning, how can this be done safely?
The minimum air pressure that is still effective should be used. A "quiet" nozzle (i.e. one with low noise emission) should be selected. The nozzle pressure must remain below 30 psi (207 kPa) and personal protective equipment (PPE) must be worn to protect the worker's body (especially the eyes) against particles and dust under pressure. Air guns should also have local exhaust ventilation or facilities to control the generation of airborne particulates. When compressed air cleaning is unavoidable, hazards can be reduced by making adjustments to the air gun such as:

  • chip guards that can deflect flying dust or debris,
  • extension tubes that provide the worker a safer working distance, or
  • injection exhausts and particle collection bags.

If compressed air is being used for cleaning purposes in your workplace, see your OHS rep immediately. If you are an OHS rep, take this issue to management.

What are the laws regarding the use of compressed air in the workplace?

There is nothing specific in Victoria's OHS legislation which addresses the use of compressed air in the workplace. However, remember that under the General Duty of Care, the employer must provide and maintain a working environment that is, so far as reasonably practicable, safe and without risks to health. This includes safe plant, safe systems of work, provision of information and training, and more - to be applied to the use of compressed air. The employer also has a duty to consult with elected reps and workers.

Some of this information has been taken from a hazard sheet from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

Last amended September 2017