Working in compressed air, also known as working in a confined space, is a common occupation in the construction, mining, and manufacturing industries. The work should be done by trained professionals who have been certified to perform the job safely.
Compressed air can be found anywhere from aircraft hangars and tunnels to subways to submarines. It is also used for many other industrial processes, such as cooling and refrigeration systems.
The dangers of working in compressed air are numerous and include the following:
- Falling objects (such as tools or debris) from above due to overpressure inside the facility.
- Explosions can result from gases released into an area, usually due to faulty equipment.
- Pressure waves can injure workers if they are not prepared for them (often, this occurs when someone opens a door at ground level while there is pressure inside).
Working in compressed air can be dangerous. Here are some of the risks the workers face if they don't take precautions:
- Respiratory problems. You could have respiratory problems like asthma or emphysema, primarily if you work in a confined space with little ventilation. This is because the air gets compressed and
released at such a high rate that it can't escape from your lungs fast enough.
- Hearing loss. Working in an area with loud noises from machinery or other sources can cause permanent hearing damage over time. This can happen even if you wear ear protection because it doesn't block out all sound waves equally.
- Heart damage. Working in an environment where your heart rate is constantly elevated can cause heart disease over time. Stroke-related illnesses like aneurysms and blood clots result from poor circulation of oxygenated blood throughout your body due to increased demands on your cardiovascular system. The exertion levels that would otherwise be considered normal become dangerous when combined with prolonged exposure to compressed air, such as working overtime shifts or sitting still too long while wearing heavy protective gear.
Another health problem resulting from working in compressed air is Decompression Illness. The most common symptoms of decompression illness are:
- Decompression sickness is a condition that occurs when a person ascends or descends too quickly, causing nitrogen gas bubbles in the blood and tissues. The most common form is an acute condition that
develops most commonly in compressed air work as pain in the joints (often referred to as Type 1 Decompression Sickness or known informally as "The Bends" or "Niggles’ if less severe). A less common manifestation of decompression sickness—Type 2 Decompression Sickness—affects the central nervous system, which can lead to paralysis if not treated immediately.
- Barotrauma refers to damage caused by a change in surrounding pressure, usually due to a difference in air density between a person's surroundings and their body. In particular, barotrauma may cause damage to the ears, sinuses and gastrointestinal tract.
- Dysbaric osteonecrosis is a chronic condition that damages the long bone joints, typically those of the hip or shoulder.
When using compressed air, the employer must take steps to minimize the health risk to workers and adopt exposure techniques that reduce the number or severity of cases where workers are exposed.
Because of the risks associated with working in compressed air, a contractor designing a system for work in this environment will need to assess all such risks. They must develop a plan to deal with risks they cannot eliminate. The program should also outline procedures for responding to emergencies.
It's essential to take advice from several professional advisers—including other medical professionals—when appropriate. It is recommended to do this with the appointed contract medical adviser and the hyperbaric supervisor.
This plan should be reviewed periodically and added to if necessary.
And, of course, remember to keep yourself safe by wearing personal protection equipment. Head over to www.parrotias.com for a wide range of high-quality PPE.