Using compressed gases in the laboratory can be a dangerous situation if they are handled improperly. Many gases can be explosive, flammable, corrosive, and toxic. Because the gases are under high pressure in tanks and cylinders, any release of gas can spread quickly and endanger lab personnel—including the possibility of injury from explosion or asphyxiation. Less serious safety risks include physical injuries from mishandling tanks, especially to the hands, feet, and lower back. That’s why it is critical to have a comprehensive safety plan in place.
Start with the standards
At a minimum, any compressed gas safety plan must include the recommendations of the Department of Transportation (DOT), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) for handling, storage, transportation, and use of compressed gas cylinders. These include:
Department of Transportation 49 CFR
- 49 CFR 171—general information
- 49 CFR 172—hazardous materials tables
- 49 CFR 178 – shipping container requirements
- Comprehensive rules that discuss gas types, how to ensure the safety of tanks, handling and storage as per the Compressed Gas Association (CGA), pressure relief devices, and other safety recommendations
- Handling and proper storage of tanks, safety data sheets, personnel training, operating procedures, best practices, employee training, and other safety recommendations
Material safety data sheets
Employees who handle compressed gas cylinders need to be familiar with the physical and chemical properties of the gases they handle, as well as the risks they present in a laboratory or storage setting.
Much of this information, including safety hazards, comes from the material safety data sheets (MSDS) that vendors provide for each gas. These sheets, as well as other reference materials, should be placed in several areas in the workspace to provide easy access to this information. In the event of an emergency, this material must be available for first responders and safety personnel.
It is ideal to have a safety and response plan for each gas. Requirements should also be established for use of personal protective equipment, safe handling of compressed gas cylinders, the ergonomics of safe lifting and handling, and keeping aisles and pathways clear of obstacles or clutter.
Practice the plan
Lab directors or safety directors should train all employees in the safety plan and provide each worker with a copy of the safety plan, as well as post it in the laboratory. Laboratory personnel must be able to react quickly (for example, know where to find emergency equipment, such as fire extinguishers, eyewash, etc.). Once in place, the safety plan must be enforced at all times, updated when needed, and practiced regularly to ensure the safest workplace possible.
A safe alternative
Although compressed gas tanks and cylinders are commonly used in workplace settings, they present safety risks as discussed above. These risks can be eliminated by switching to an on-site gas generator. Advantages of generating gases in-house include:
- Safety - on-site generators operate at low pressures and store small volumes of pressurized gas, eliminating the risk of rapid release of gas
- Eliminates risks of handling and storing heavy gas cylinders
- Gas delivery is automatic, reliable, and relatively inexpensive
- Cost of operation is very low, compared to high-pressure gas cylinders
- Built-in leak detection
- Eliminates need for periodic inspection of cylinders
- Exceeds OSHA 1910.103 and NFPA 50A safety guidelines
- Can reduce insurance rates
Parker offers in-house generators for each gas as well as multiple-gas generators. The generators are plug-and-play systems that operate on a continual basis without the need for operator attention. The cost of operating an in-house gas generator is extremely low since the only raw materials used are air and electricity. Running and maintaining a gas generator system typically costs only a few hundred dollars a year. Return on investment is 12 months, depending on the specific usage and required purity.
For additional information, read this guide to safe handling of compressed gases in the laboratory.
This post was contributed by the Parker Gas Generation Technology Blog Team