Compressed air as the fourth utility plays a vital role in manufacturing. Despite being as essential to as many processes as gas and electricity, when it comes to safety it is often left unconsidered, or even forgotten.

Yet the misuse of compressed air can cause serious or even fatal consequences. Every year, according to the British Compressed Air Society (BCAS), on average there are 150 dangerous occurrences in the UK. Of which, six result in fatal or serious injury.

Direct contact with compressed air can lead to serious medical conditions. This usually occurs from accidental release of high-pressure air, or misuse of air supply equipment.

  • Compressed air can enter the bloodstream via the skin. If it makes its way to blood vessels and the heart, it can cause symptoms like a heart attack. Or reaching the brain can cause a stroke or prove fatal.
  • It only takes 1 bar(g) of compressed air pressure to blow an eye out of its socket.
  • Air stream near the eardrum can cause a loss of hearing or brain haemorrhage.

If compressed air is a vital to your processes, it is important that your shop floor doesn’t comprise on safety.


The legal stuff

You may or may or not be aware that your compressed air system is subject to legal requirements!

The user of installed compressed air plant or the owner of mobile compressor equipment is subject to legal requirements. This is the Pressure Systems Safety Regulations S.I. 2000 No 168 (PSSR), a statutory instrument for the ‘in-service’ use of pressure equipment.

These regulations aim to prevent serious injury from the hazard of stored energy, as a result of the failure of a pressure system or one of its component parts. Any breach of these regulations falls under the authority of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Under the PSSR regulations, every compressed air system needs to have a Written Scheme of Examination (WSE) in place. The document contains information including:

  • the parts of the system which need to be examined,
  • the nature of the examination required,
  • the preparatory work needed,
  • and the greatest interval allowed between examinations.

It is important the system is regularly inspected by an independent party. The regulations allow for the supplier of the installed equipment to assume the responsibility of the WSE.

And in case the importance isn’t understood, there is a potential fine of up to £20,000 for not having a Written Scheme of Examination!


Compressors and downstream equipment should be installed and maintained to ensure safe operation.

Any of the following can cause a health and safety risk:

  • incorrectly specified equipment,
  • poorly installed pipework,
  • excessive bends and fittings.

Regular servicing identifies any potential hazards, allowing them to be fixed or removed.

At present, there is no formal accreditation for engineers designing, installing and maintaining compressed air systems. This could lead to end users receiving poor advice and safety compromised. The best way to ensure quality which meets health and safety standards is to use a registered BCAS member.

The system operators

And finally, there is internal responsibility needed for the compressed air operators. Problems often happen when compressed air is used to dust off machinery, work benches or clothes. There needs to be an appropriate level of safety training for operators. This will raise awareness of the risks and prevent inappropriate misuses.

And if the operators are breathing the compressed air, you must deliver the air quality required by BS EN 12021.

Compressed air must always be used with care and only for its intended purpose. What next? Before anything double check, you have a Written Scheme of Examination in place.