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It is a common sight in many workplaces to see employees using compressed air to clean parts, equipment, and even clothing. What many workers and some employers do not realize is that compressed air can be deadly. That is why OSHA has a regulation prohibiting the use of compressed air for cleaning unless the dead-end pressure is reduced to below 30 psi, and then only with effective chip guarding and PPE.

The regulation Federal OSHA’s requirement for cleaning with compressed air is in 1910.242(b):

  • “Compressed air used for cleaning. Compressed air shall not be used for cleaning purposes except where reduced to less than 30 psi and then only with effective chip guarding and personal protective equipment.” Because the regulation is short and somewhat vague, OSHA has clarified the issue in a compliance directive and letters of interpretation.

What is “chip guarding”?

“Effective chip guarding” means any method or equipment which will prevent a chip or particle (of whatever size) from being blown into the eyes or unbroken skin of the operator or other workers.

Effective chip guarding may be separate from the air nozzle as in the case where screens or barriers are used. The use of protective cone air nozzles are acceptable in general for protection of the operator, but barriers, baffles or screens may be required to protect other workers if they are exposed to flying chips or particles.

What about the psi requirement?

The regulation requires the psi at the nozzle to be less than 30 when using compressed air for cleaning.

However, OSHA has said in interpretive guidance that the use of compressed air for cleaning purposes at pressures at or greater than 30 psi is permissible if the outlet or source is fitted with a relief device or air ports that drop the pressure to less than 30 psi if the flow is dead-ended.

What about cleaning clothing/bodies?

While the regulation does not specifically address the issue, in a letter of interpretation OSHA said that employers should not allow employees to use compressed air for cleaning themselves or their clothing in general industry situations. The eyes and other body parts, such as the respiratory system, may be damaged as the result of inadequate personal protective equipment, lack of chip guards, and/or uncontrolled release of compressed air.

The dangers

There are numerous dangers of improperly using compressed air:

  • Embolism: If compressed air enters the bloodstream through a body opening or skin break, it can create an embolism (air bubble) that can be life threatening.
  • Eye damage: Particles that are being blown can “blow back” and strike the eyes. The air itself can also cause injury if it is pointed toward the eyes.
  • Hearing loss: Some compressed air equipment can be loud enough to damage hearing. Always wear proper PPE.
  • Combustible dust: If compressed air is used to blow certain dusts, it can create a suspension in the air that could ignite if there is an ignition source.
  • Respiratory: Particles or air can enter the respiratory system, posing deadly hazards.
  • Whips: If not properly secured, hoses can whip and cause severe injury.

Workers must be trained that even extremely low pressures, such as 5 or 10 psi, can still cause severe damage if pointed toward the body, particularly the mouth, eyes, ears, or open areas in the skin.

Employers should train employees on the dangers of compressed air, and ensure the equipment is equipped with the necessary safety features and is properly maintained.

Supervisors should watch for improper use, particularly horseplay, and initiate corrective action. In addition, for many applications, a broom or shop vacuum may be just as effective at cleaning, and much safer. Compressed air may seem harmless, but if strict safeguards and practices are not utilized it can be deadly.