Minimising hazards associated with handling common industrial gases

There are five main risks associated with common industrial gases used in manufacturing facilities – pressure, anoxia, cryogenic burns, fire and toxicity. If gases are not handled correctly employees can suffer from severe frostbite, compromised respiratory and circulatory systems, and oxygen deficiency.

While these hazards can lead to severe harm or death, they can be avoided with correct handling procedures. Air Liquide Australia, which specialises in gases, technologies and services for industry and health, offers training to all its customers, partners and resellers that can ensure employees are kept safe at all times on the factory floor.

Topics vary based on the trainee needs, but they include general gas handling safety principles, safe handling of welding gases, safe handling of oxygen and acetylene, manipulating and connecting cylinders, oxygen deficient atmospheres and working with liquefied gases.

Air Liquide Australia’s national expert in packaged gas technical operations, Lee De Angelis, said there are steps that all companies should take to ensure gases are handled safely. “Wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at all times, follow standard operating procedures, apply cylinder handling and storage guidelines, and think before acting,” he said.

De Angelis also suggested that people read safety data sheets for the gases they work with and that they receive training on the risks of each gas, including on what to do when gas is accidentally released.

“On top of these steps, we recommend customers to keep training their workforce on DOs and DON’Ts for the safe handling, transportation and storage of cylinders. In particular, few typical recommendations are to always strap loose cylinders, not to transport cylinders with a regulator or equipment attached, respect distances for fuel and oxygen storage, not to smoke or be under the influence of drugs (including alcohol) when handling cylinders, and not to enter confined spaces without oxygen monitoring systems,” said De Angelis.

If gas is unintentionally released or not handled correctly this can result in risks including:

Anoxia – Argon and nitrogen can displace oxygen and lead to anoxia, particularly in confined spaces. Carbon dioxide also displaces oxygen but its toxicity would typically be the first hazard to consider.

Cryogenic burns (frostbite) – When used in large quantities or for certain applications, argon, oxygen, nitrogen or carbon dioxide are stored in liquid form at very low temperatures, which can lead to severe frostbite if not handled properly.

Fire and explosion – Oxygen and acetylene used for metal cutting are the typical fire risk in manufacturing facilities. Pure oxygen alone is also dangerous as it can trigger fires or explosions with small organic particles and sparks.

Toxicity – Carbon dioxide is toxic at concentrations as low as five per cent in air, enhancing toxicity of other gases such as carbon monoxide. At higher concentrations it affects the respiratory and circulatory systems. Although not typically used in standard manufacturing facilities, gases such as sulphur dioxide are extremely toxic and must be handled with specific gas detectors at all times.

Pressure – Gases stored in cylinders are under high pressure. If not handled or maintained properly, pressure can be released by accident transforming cylinders into rockets. Hoses connected to pressurised cylinders are also potential hazards if they are not properly restrained.

De Angelis said gas is a state of matter that is particularly risky for living organisms. “Unlike liquids or solids, gases diffuse rapidly in the environment and can be undetected by human senses, which make them potentially very dangerous.”

Prioritising safety

Safety is Air Liquide’s number one priority and a core value for the company. “With more than 115 years of industrial gas manufacturing and handling, Air Liquide has acquired a large expertise in safe handling of these hazardous materials.

“All Air Liquide cylinders are visually inspected at our filling centres at every refill and dismantled, internally inspected and pressure tested typically every 10 years,” said De Angelis.

Nearly all of Air Liquide’s high pressure cylinders are equipped with three safety features – a residual pressure valve that prevents moisture from penetrating cylinders when empty to avoid corrosion, a safety device to prevent explosion and release the gas in case of over-pressure, and a guard to protect the valve in the event of a fall or hit.

“Air Liquide also proposes additional safety features with the SMARTOP and ALTOP cylinder tops. The SMARTOP is equipped with an on-off lever, instead of a manual rotating valve, to quickly shut down the flow in case of accidental release or to easily see if a cylinder is closed before manipulating it. The ALTOP is equipped with a similar on-off lever as well as an integrated pressure regulator and a quick-connect inlet to mitigate risks related to regulator installation and potential leaks,” said De Angelis.

By prioritising safety, Air Liquide ensures that manufacturers using industrial gases in their facilities minimise their risk of harm.