It should come as no surprise that working with compressed gas cylinders has some inherent risks. Every year, thousands of workers are injured in a variety of ways by working with or handling gas cylinders, with many more unreported ‘close calls’ occurring. Some liken this type of work to handling a loaded weapon every day, which isn’t too far off. If everyone were fully aware of the potential for damage and injury, they would likely be more careful with their methods.
There are a variety of principal gases that are used for industry, and these include oxygen, nitrogen, argon, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, helium and acetylene. There are also many other types of mixtures available, making the need for thorough product knowledge and safety standards an absolute must. Compressed gas cylinders themselves aren’t so dangerous on their own, but it’s how we handle them that causes problems.
Safety standards and regulations vary by region across the country, and it is every employer’s responsibility to be fully compliant with them. Contact your local governmental agency or go online to download the details for your particular area.
What Are The Risks?
With so many gas types and working scenarios involved, this article will deal with general safety tips only. The exact details for handling specific gases may be found through provincial or local regulatory standards, supplier consultation and through any compressed gas associations. Listed below are some common potential injuries:
- Tanks can be pressurized up to 2,200 pounds per square inch (psi) and can shoot forward like a missile if the cylinder valve is damaged. Serious physical injury and property damage can be sustained if the tank has a sudden loss in pressure.
- Fire and explosion is a real risk with flammable gases such as acetylene, propane, hydrogen or butane
- Compressed gas cylinders are large, heavy and difficult to move efficiently. Injuries most often occur through falling cylinders, pinched hands or feet or back injuries caused by lifting or in an attempt to keep a tank from falling.
- A worker’s health may be affected by exposure to toxic substances
- Chemical burns can result from exposure to corrosive materials
- Worker asphyxiation is always a hazard if particular inert gases escape and are allowed to accumulate in a closed space. This will affect oxygen levels in the immediate area and can result in unconsciousness or death.
No matter what type of gas you use, the safe handling of cylinders requires some common (and common sense) methods to help prevent accidents and injuries.
- Manufacturers are required by law to label their cylinders to identify the gases contained within. Some manufacturers also colour-code their cylinders as a form of identification, but this method isn’t standardized and is not an accurate way to verify the contents. Always use the label as your primary indicator.
- Where possible, substitute more toxic or volatile materials for those that present less risk. Review your operational needs vs. product availability on a regular basis.
- Establish formal standard operating procedures with regard to cylinder use, handling and storage, and also provide comprehensive training to those workers and supervisors who must deal with them
- Ensure that complete MSDS information is available for each gas used, and that each worker and supervisor is familiar with it
- Put emergency planning and evacuation procedures into place that deal specifically with any gases used within your facility. Also include any emergency response equipment that may be required to deal with an emergency situation.
- Before using, always check cylinders for signs of damage and excessive wear. Be aware of burns, dents, corrosion, fumes or hissing sounds. Immediately replace any tanks that do not meet safety standards.
- Secure cylinders in an upright position, with chains ideally, and keep the protective valve cap in-place when not in use
- Always wear approved personal protective equipment (PPE) based on the gases being used. This would include eye and face protection, a hard hat, gloves, safety footwear, fire or chemical resistant clothing and respiration gear.
- Transport tanks on specially designed carts or trolleys only, and never attempt to carry them or drag by the cap
- Do not use compressed gases close to sources of heat, ignition or near combustible materials
- Be sure to post adequate warning signs in areas where gases are being used or stored
- Ensure that work areas are properly ventilated with fans, filters, hoods and ducts depending on the nature of the materials being used
- As a general rule, never attempt to try to and catch a cylinder that is falling. Due to the weight, the potential for injury is very high.
- Ensure that any equipment is compatible with the cylinder pressure and contents before using. Regularly check all hoses and connections to be sure that they are in good condition.
- Always open tank valves slowly and pointed away from yourself or others. Do not use excessive force, and remember to close all valves when tanks are not in use.
- Never tamper with the safety devices on cylinders and valves, or jury-rig equipment in any way
Any business that uses compressed gases must comply with occupational health and safety regulations, in addition to the fire and building codes that apply to their workplace. These standards will typically outline the construction specifications of the storage areas, as well as the types and amounts of gases that can be stored. Below is a list of general steps to help ensure the overall safety for tank storage.
- Be sure that all full cylinders are clearly labeled and are stored separately from empty tanks. Keep incompatible gases in separate areas based on regulatory specifications, maintain strict inventory processes overall and rotate stock on a regular basis.
- Storage areas should be cool, dry and well ventilated
- Keep stored tanks away from public access routes, loading docks or in handling and processing areas. Clearly mark storage areas with warning signs.
- Keep tanks away from sources of heat, electrical panels, switches and cords
- Always keep tanks chained to a solid structure and in an upright position
- Limit access to storage areas and allow only trained and authorized personnel to handle cylinders
- All staff should be familiar with MSDS information and gas supplier recommendations for safety. When working with compressed gases, it is critical to understand the materials that you are working with and what the potential hazards may be.
- If storing tanks outdoors, be sure to protect them from the weather in a dry, fenced area or cage (on a concrete pad).
- Inspect storage areas regularly for any signs of moisture, structural issues or tank damage
- Maintain good housekeeping at all times, to avoid clutter and the potential build-up of combustible materials in the area
There are a number of hazards associated with the handling, use and storage of compressed gases, but they are an integral part of our industrial processes and aren’t going anywhere soon. Luckily, the industry is well regulated enough to have the resources available to help minimize the risks.