Storage, handling and use of industrial and compressed industrial gases is a dangerous job. In January, six employees at a poultry processing plant in Georgia died as a result of an alleged liquid nitrogen leak, highlighting the exposure risks of working with gases. Normally, oxygen comprises 21 percent of the air we breathe, and OSHA considers oxygen levels unsafe at 19.5 percent or less. Studies of nitrogen leaks indicate that it can quickly reduce oxygen levels in an enclosed area to around one percent.
In its gaseous state, nitrogen actually makes up for 78 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. It is described as an odorless, tasteless, colorless and non-toxic gas. For industrial purposes, it is usually kept in tanks as a compressed gas or in a liquid state under high pressure. When depressurized, liquid nitrogen quickly returns to a gaseous state.
What are Industrial Gases?
OSHA compiled a list of 130 potentially hazardous industrial gases used in workplace settings.
Industrial gases are usually delivered from the producer to the user by trucks or railroad cars in large metal cylinders, which keep the gas in a compressed or liquid state. They are occasionally delivered by pipelines. Upon delivery, the end user may transfer these gases to their own central storage tanks. Welding gases are usually kept in cylinders that range from 10 to 400 cubic feet in capacity.
While most industrial gases are compressed in their containers at around 2,500 pounds per square inch (PSI), some reach pressures up to 6,000 PSA. At these high pressures, the weakest points in the entire system are often the welds, mechanical connections and fittings. These must be closely inspected after their installation and can deteriorate due to rust, corrosion, normal wear and tear or contact damage.
Types of Industrial Gases
Industrial gases can be broadly divided into medical gases, fuel gases and refrigerant gases. They can be further classified into their physical properties such as air gases like nitrogen and oxygen, noble gases such as helium and argon, and elemental gases that include hydrogen and chlorine.
Industry groups that are widespread users of these gases include oil and gas, chemicals, petrochemicals, power generation, steel making, metal working, agriculture, food processing, beverage manufacturers, water treatment and purification, medical and dental, pharmaceuticals, biotech and electronics manufacturing.
What are the most common types of industrial gases in the U.S.?
- Carbon Dioxide
What are the main risks of working with industrial gases?
The five main risks working with industrial gases include pressure, anoxia (the absence of oxygen), cryogenic burns, fire and toxicity.
The injury potential to workers include severe frostbite, compromised respiratory and circulatory systems, chemical burns and heat burns from fire or explosion.
What are the OSHA regulations for industrial gases?
OSHA has specific compressed gases safety standards for General Industries, Construction and Maritime. In addition, OSHA¹ has developed Process Safety Management (PSM) regulations for around 130 specific industrial and compressed gases, usually in quantities exceeding 10,000-pounds per location. The PSM regulations can also apply to chemicals that are normally in a solid, non-gaseous or liquid state.
10 Tips for Industrial Gas Safety
- With the use of dangerous gases and liquids, management should investigate the possibility of the substitution of less dangerous chemicals.
- Even if present in only a small quantity in the workplace, management should maintain copies of the respective gas’s Safety Data Sheet (SDS) on file in both paper and electronic format for quick access by all employees and emergency responders.
- A liquified gas may have a different Safety Data Sheet and different hazards than the same gas in a gaseous state.
- Tanks and distribution systems should be periodically inspected for system integrity and methods like thermal imaging testing can not only verify temperatures and tank contents levels, but identify possible leaks, malfunctioning valves and system blockages.
- Distribution systems such as piping may require, by OSHA regulations, to be color coded with direction of flow markings.
- With the presence of hazardous gases workers should be specifically trained on the steps to take in an emergency situation such as a leak.
- Personnel should be provided appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) needed for working with gases and trained in their proper use.
- A reliable communication link should be in effect with the closest emergency responders and organizational personnel should be trained in how to effectively communicate with them.
- In the event of a large scale leak of toxic gases, nearby businesses, institutions and dwellings may need to be part of an emergency notification and evacuation system.
- Be sure that the Safety Data Sheet for a given industrial or compressed gas exactly matches the product name and is the most current and comprehensive one available.
About Safety Data Sheets
The Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for a given industrial gas usually covers exposure and safety related information and is considered the primary reference document. The manufacturer of an industrial gas is required to provide information in 16 individual sections on the SDS to include the following:
- Product Identification
- Product Hazard
- First Aid Measures
- Fire Fighting Measures
- Accidental Release Measures
- Handling Measures
- Exposure Controls and Personal Protective Measures
- Physical and Chemical Properties
- Stability and Reactivity
- Toxicological Information
- Ecological Information
- Disposal Considerations
- Transport Information
- Regulatory Information
- Other Information
While most industrial gases are produced domestically, those imported from foreign suppliers may not come with a complete SDS. OSHA maintains that it is the end user’s responsibility to obtain an adequate SDS for their protection of their employees.
Working with industrial and compressed gases is a dangerous job. Ensure vigilance, provide proper training and PPE to employees. Enforce a regular and strict inspection schedule. Know and follow OSHA regulations. Post and use the Safety Data Sheet for industrial gases used in your workplace. Ultimately, safety matters – put your employees and community first.
About Centurion’s Loss Control Program
Centurion’s in-house Loss Control Manager, Rob Brooks, has extensive experience in safety and risk management.
Rob’s signature programs – help desk, training and support services – add to the Centurion Advantage. Mitigating risk, educating your employees and having 24 hour access to a help line adds an additional level of support to your business that Centurion is honored to provide.
Schedule a call with a Centurion Insurance Services associate to learn more about our customizable loss control solutions for your business.