Many engineers are attracted to air compressors due to their reliability, low cost, and ability to do so many different things. However, something they saw on TV or the internet sometimes makes them irrationally hesitant to go for this option.
Thinking About Safety
Anyone with experience of the subject will know that accidents, at work or in your own garage, usually happen when several apparently minor factors converge. A stray spark from somewhere, a liquid spill you plan to clean up “in five minutes”, a can of paint left on the floor instead of being put away, and a phone call that makes you turn your back are all pretty harmless in themselves, but can ruin your whole week should they line up in exactly the wrong way.
As many as 5,000 Americans are killed in the workplace every year. This translates to about 3.6 per 100,000 – similar to the rate at which people die in firearm-related incidents. Many more than those five thousand suffer amputations, permanent disability, or time off work. Taking into account only the manufacturing and construction sectors, this figure reaches well over half a million.
A person has to wonder what the situation is like in less developed countries, or those that aren’t overrun with lawyers. Each one of these cases represents a financial loss to the worker who’s been hurt, their employer, or both. Clearly, anything feasible that can be done to improve the situation absolutely should be, especially when deciding on new equipment purchases or work processes.
Supporting Safety in the Workplace
The reality here is that any factory or workshop contains numerous hazards. As time goes by, it’s easy to become accustomed to the situation and forget that things like moving machinery, corrosive chemicals, and heights can be very dangerous. This is, of course, doubly true when people are careless, overtired, or untrained.
Any employee should have the right to refuse to work with unsafe equipment, and in many parts of the world this forms a part of health and safety law. However, we should also be realistic about this. Most occupational injuries, by far, aren’t caused by the (mis)use of machinery:
When looked at realistically, improving road safety practices and making sure ordinary workplace guidelines and rules are followed are much more important than wondering if your new compressor is likely to explode.
Using Compressed Air in the Workplace
Compressed air is useful, versatile, and usually safer than its alternatives. For example, electrical cables, especially outdoors, are no more robust than good-quality hoses and can cause fires or electrocution. In fact, injuries related to compressed air are extremely few and far between.
Nail guns are an obvious hazard, regardless of whether they’re powered by air compressors or anything else. As with any power tool, holding them near or pointing them towards any body part is a bad idea, and can lead to serious injury.
In the worst possible example of this (though possibly an urban legend), someone died after inserting an air hose into his rectum for unknown reasons. Less profoundly stupid, but also far more common, is the practice of directing pressurized air at oneself or others, which can easily lead to ruptured eardrums, eye damage, or lethal high-pressure injection injuries. Employees should certainly be made aware of dangers such as these, and expect discipline if they break safety rules.
Environmental Health Factors
In general, reading the manufacturer’s manual will tell a person all they need to know about safely operating an air compressor. This should be required of everyone who is likely to be using this tool. That having been said, a few occupational safety tips are worth mentioning to anyone in the market for a new compressor.
For fairly obvious reasons, a gas-powered compressor, or one used for spraying, should be operated only in well-ventilated areas. Wearing eye protection is also highly recommended, especially if you really have to use compressed air for cleaning.
One of the things mentioned most frequently in customer feedback about air compressors, especially those meant for home use, is how loud they are. Any kind of selection guide that compares different models will usually include decibel measurements. Hearing damage is one of the sneakiest disabilities, often showing up only after many years. When in doubt, and especially for indoor work, ear protection should be mandatory.
Weight and Mobility
Worker fatigue is one of the leading yet most downplayed causes of workplace injuries. Added to this risk, it’s far too easy to strain your back when lifting a heavy, bulky object, so choosing a compressor with wheels is often a good idea.
On much the same note, something to remember here is that pressure vessels, although built pretty sturdily, can be damaged by even minor impacts and drops, especially if already corroded. This is why it really is essential to work the drain valve after every use.
It’s definitely important to depressurize your compressor when transporting it by vehicle and when lifting it using a winch or crane. High-powered models can easily achieve internal pressures similar to those found in an LPG tank. When someone I knew knocked the valve off one of these to “see what would happen”, it rammed straight through a brick wall before coming to rest more than a hundred yards away – not something you’d like to see on a construction site.