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Why is it that many people on the plant floor use compressed air to clean their machines and the floors around them? It’s easy. That’s why. The problem is compressed air can be the most expensive and most ineffective and damaging way to “clean” machine♦s.

Think about it. Phhht! Compressed air moves dust, dirt, and debris (“stuff”) from one place to another. When one machine is manually “cleaned” this way, all that “stuff” goes elsewhere, or, more precisely, to the machine or workspace next door. Then, when those next-door items or places are “cleaned” with compressed air, the “stuff” is essentially blown back home. What sense does that make?

Imagine cleaning your living room at home with compressed air. Of course, that doesn’t happen very often, given the fact peoples’ homes don’t generally have compressed air systems. We use vacuum cleaners that actually pick up, contain, and remove dust, dirt, and debris, (“stuff”).

Tapping into a plant’s compressed air lines to manually clean objects, machinery, bench tops, clothing, and other things can be dangerous to humans and equipment. To help ensure safe and reliable workplaces, it’s important to share this fact with leadership and plant-floor employees. The following points support the argument.

Most of my career has been spent in plants and facilities where I’ve tried to help people treat their machines better. During that time, I’ve seen (and heard) various horror stories on how cleaning with compressed air caused unplanned equipment downtime. Here are a few:

♦  Overheated Electronics. One plant provided compressed air lines and nozzles for “cleaning” at each of the manufacturing lines. The operators learned to clean their lines at the end of the shift in a specific order: Line 1, then Line 2, Line 3, and so on in that order toward the wall. The problem? All the electrical and control cabinets for the lines were located along the same wall where all  the “stuff” went. Alas, the cabinet intake filters at the bottom of the enclosures would quickly plug solid with debris (within a period of several days). It would then be just a matter of time before the circuits inside overheated and failed, shutting the production lines down.

♦  Destroyed Bearings. Dust blown off the machine with compressed air forced debris into the shaft seals on the motors and gear boxes leading to premature bearing failures. But the machines were clean!

♦  Slipping Belts. Frequent belt slippage and premature belt failures occurred due to airborne debris getting between the V-belts and sheaves.

♦  Overheated Hydraulics. Premature hydraulic component overheating and failures were caused by debris buildup in the heat hydraulic system exchangers.

In the United States, a federal OSHA requirement can be found in 29 CFR Part 1910.242(b), which states: “Compressed air shall not be used for cleaning purposes, except where reduced to less than 30 psi, and then only with effective chip guarding and personal protective equipment.”

OSHA has further clarified that “employers should not allow employees to use compressed air for cleaning themselves or their clothing in general industry situations.” (US DOL, OSHA, Standard Interpretation, January 14, 1994)

OSHA Standard 29 CFR 1917.154 addresses similar hazards in the maritime industry and explicitly prohibits the use of compressed air for personnel cleaning. “While this requirement is not specifically applicable in the general industry setting, it is recognized it as good practice for all industries.” (US DOL, OSHA, Standard Interpretation, January 14, 1994)

As for Canada, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) states that, in many Canadian jurisdictions, cleaning with compressed air is not allowed by law. Alberta, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and Saskatchewan specifically mention that compressed air shall not be used to clean clothes, or in other situations cleaning a person, machinery, work benches, etc. Reference to cleaning may also be included with specific mention to it being prohibited when there is a risk to the worker being injured or that the device must be specifically designed to safely clean a person or surface (federal regulations, Ontario, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, North West Territories, Nunavut, and the Yukon). In some cases, other Canadian legislation may apply. For example, cleaning with compressed air is prohibited in Manitoba and Ontario when working with asbestos.

In the UK, according to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, “The employer has a responsibility to provide a safe working environment and the employee, in the case of compressed air, to use air-operated tools and equipment in a safe manner to protect his/her own safety, as well as that of work colleagues.”

Finally, per the British Compressed Air Society Fact Sheet 105-2, “Blowguns should only be used for cleaning purposes where the use of vacuum is not possible or appropriate. Blowguns must not be used for general cleaning of clothing or equipment.”

When it comes to preventing compressed air horror stories, it’s important to keep these cautionary notes in mind: 

♦  Injury from Particles. Compressed air is extremely forceful. Compressed air can project filings, shavings, chips, and particles of metal into the eyes, ears or skin.

♦  Air in The Bloodstream. Compressed air can enter the blood stream through the skin or a body opening. An air bubble in the blood stream is known as an embolism. An embolism of an artery can cause coma, paralysis or death depending upon its size, duration, and location.

♦  Respiratory Hazards. Using air to clean machines and surfaces displaces dirt and dust particles into the air, making these contaminants airborne and creating a respiratory hazard.

♦  Hearing Damage. Noise levels associated with compressed air nozzles are normally high and there is a significant risk of permanent hearing damage from prolonged exposure.

Here is the reality at many sites: Using a plant’s compressed air is NOT the way to clean machines. But it’s easy. Compressed air cleaning can be dangerous to humans and machines. But it’s easy. Compressed air is certainly not free. But it’s easy.

Changing from what is “easy” to alternative methods may NOT be so easy. Alternatives include vacuum cleaners. I have seen industrial shop vacs, vacuum-manifold systems with hose drops at each machine, and even compressed air-powered vacuum cleaners. The bottom line is that compressed air hoses used for manual “cleaning” must be removed or disabled for the safety of employees and the reliability of machines.TRR

Bob Williamson is a long-time contributor to the people-side of the world-class-maintenance and manufacturing body of knowledge across dozens of industry types. His background in maintenance, machine and tool design, and teaching has positioned his work with over 500 companies and plants, facilities, and equipment-oriented organizations. Contact him directly at 512-800-6031 or

Tags: reliability, availability, maintenance, RAM, compressed air, personnel safety, energy, skills training, workforce development, workforce issues