As part of National Safety Week, we want to talk about pneumatic tools. Once incorporated into your work flow, pneumatics are an incredible time saver. But are you or your employer giving enough thought to air tool safety?
Pneumatic tool safety falls into three broad categories: personal protective equipment, air hose and supply safety, and the proper use of the tools themselves. With a little attention to safety best practices in these three areas, you can mitigate many potential hazards and stay safe. Workplace injuries from pneumatic tools are all too common, and most of the time, they could have been avoidable.
If you're using pneumatic tools, common sense dictates that you need to take precautions for your own safety. If you're an employer, you have legal requirements to comply with, and you could find yourself liable if there's an injury involving your equipment. It's your responsibility to maintain it, and to ensure that those who use it are properly trained.
Personal Protective Equipment
Personal protective equipment, or PPE, is a must. Even if there is only a one-thousand-to-one chance of an accident while using a tool, one year of daily use makes that slim chance almost a certainty. Accidents can and do happen. Be prepared and ensure that when something does go wrong, nobody gets hurt.
Safety glasses should be made of impact-resistant plastic and wrap around to provide peripheral coverage. OSHA regulations require that employers enforce safety glass use in any position involving eye hazards from flying objects, particles, chemicals, molten metals, or dangerous light levels. Further, OSHA mandates peripheral protection in areas or occupations featuring flying object hazards.
Hearing damage is a real possibility with pneumatic tools, especially if you are working with jackhammers or air-powered impact wrenches. OSHA specifically shoots down the idea of cheaping out by stuffing cotton balls in your ears, by the way, no matter what some of the old-timers say. When in doubt, the best option can be a pair of shooter's ear protectors. They are easy to find, affordable, and comfortable.
When working with heavy-duty pneumatic tools, such a jackhammers, some additional PPE is necessary. Heavy rubber grips on the tool itself will help compensate for some of the vibration. Safety shoes or work boots are a must, however, in case the tool slips. A face shield is also a good idea.
And of course, ensure that the public are kept well away from areas where workers are using pneumatic tools. Flying debris can travel a long way, and you must set up a suitable exclusion zone.
Air Supply and Hose Safety
Much of the common dangers posed by compressed air hoses can be mitigated by adopting the same safety habits you would with electrical cords. Air hoses pose a similar trip hazard on the job site and suffer much of the same workday wear and tear. Keep walk paths clear and regularly inspect your hose for cuts and abraded areas. If you find significant damage, tag the hose for repair or replacement to avoid rupture.
Before purchasing air hose for your shop, check the maximum pressure of your compressed air system. You want hoses rated for 150 psig (pounds per square inch gauge) or 150% of the maximum system pressure, whichever is greater.
If the air hose is more than ½ inch in diameter, install a safety excess flow valve as close to your compressor as is practical. In case of a blowout or connection failure, down the line, the excess flow valve automatically cuts in to reduce pressure downstream of the compressor. This mitigates the hazard of whipping cords and air-blown debris you'll otherwise face in event of a sudden failure.
Ensure all hose connections fit properly and can be mechanically secured. This prevents the hose whipping into you if the connection on your tool fails. Quick-release connections are great, as you don't have to bleed the hose line of pressure before changing tools. There is one potentially fatal mistake you can make installing quick connects, however: the male end belongs on the tool, not the hose. It's the female end which regulates pressure, for one, while the male end of a quick-release coupling whipping through the air on a runaway hose is a deadly hazard.
It sounds ridiculous, but we've seen air tools configured this way. Just don't do it. Check out this short video clip on YouTube to see why.
Pneumatic Tool Safety
First things first: no matter how long you've been using similar tools, read the manufacturer's operating instructions for each new model that comes into your shop. Subtle procedural differences may not be apparent until a failure is triggered. Take the time and do your homework. It only takes a few minutes.
You'll find maintenance and lubrication best practices in the manual as well. It's a simple matter to arrange oiling and cleaning schedules so that a single pass covers most, if not all, of your pneumatic tools. Clean tools don't jam at the worst possible moment.
To help your tools last longer, blow out your air supply to clear the connector before attaching a tool. This prevents shop-born debris and general gunk from being forced into the tool when pressure is introduced. The same principle applies to the air itself. Installing an in-line regulator as close to the compressor as is practical will solve a lot of problems, in this regard, by filtering moisture and corrosive fumes. Debris or corrosive agents in the air line will be carried into the inner workings of the device.
You can exploit this by installing an in-line lubricator, downstream of the regulator, to introduce a fine spray of tool oil into your lines. This will lubricate your air tools as you use them.
Want to learn more about air tool safety best practices? We've collected some useful starting points:
ñ OSHA's Hand and Power Tool Safety publications digest best practices into easily-understood reviews for different kinds of common tools.
ñ The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety is similar, but their web publications are slightly better organized.
ñ A Comprehensive Compressed Air Systems Design Guide, brought to you by Kaeser Compressors.