On the job, many electricians, linemen, wiremen and other construction-related workers will encounter or use a pneumatic-powered tool at some point. Pneumatic tools are powered by compressed air or compressed carbon dioxide (CO2) supplied by a small cylinder. Although these tools are largely considered safer to use than electric power tools, they still pose some serious occupational safety and health risks.


Commonly used pneumatic-powered tools include air impact wrenches, air ratchets, airbrushes, blow guns, jackhammers, sandblasters, paint sprayers, nail guns, drills, power washers, pneumatic jacks and angle grinders. All of these tools can cause serious injury, especially if used improperly.


When working with pneumatic tools, there is a serious danger of getting hit by an attachment or fastener. To minimize this risk, never point these tools at anyone.


Similar to hydraulic injection fluids, compressed air can enter the blood stream through a break in the skin or through a bodily opening. If an air bubble enters the blood stream, it can cause unconsciousness, paralysis or even death. As a result, it is important that workers receive proper training prior to operating any pneumatic-powered tool.


Air also can be used as a tool by itself. Air under pressure is often used for cleaning items ranging from keyboards to large pieces of industrial equipment and machinery. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates the use of air pressure for cleaning to less than or equal to 30 psi. 


Special care must be taken when using air pressure for cleaning. Moreover, pneumatic-powered tools and air pressure should never be used to clean the body or remove dirt from clothing.


Some additional hazards associated with pneumatic tools include the risk of flying debris, dirt and dust particles. When these contaminants become airborne, they create hazardous projectiles and possible respiratory hazards. Screens can be set up to protect nearby workers from flying fragments around nail guns, blow guns, power washers and air drills.


Pneumatic-powered tools may also present an air temperature hazard. According to the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, “If the air discharges on your hand, you can feel that it is cold. Under certain conditions, the temperature could be low enough to cause frostbite, stiffen your fingers, or even make you more susceptible to certain types of cumulative trauma injuries. Gloves may help if they can be worn without creating the additional hazard of becoming caught up in any rotating or reciprocating parts.”


OSHA requires hoses on pneumatic tools carrying pressurized air or CO2 to be connected securely to prevent separation. The manufacturer will also have specifications and safety thresholds for air pressure that anyone working with the tool should be familiar with. Exceeding the ranges for a hose, valve or fitting could result in a blowout in the hose or at the connection point. If the hose has a diameter of more than a half-inch, OSHA requires that it be equipped with a safety valve to shut off the pressure if and when the hose fails.


Pneumatic tools should always be fastened securely to the hose to prevent disconnection from the cylinders generating air pressure. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, “When pneumatic energy is released in an uncontrolled manner, individuals may be crushed or struck by moving machinery, equipment or other items.” Therefore, it is vital that all compressed gas lines and valves are shut off completely when work is finished. Since some air pressure often remains, releasing it from the line will ensure that any residual energy is removed, reducing the risk of potential injuries.


Noise from operating pneumatic-powered tools also can pose a risk to hearing. Proper hearing protection should always be used. Additional personal protective equipment (PPE) options and requirements that further mitigate the risk of injury from pneumatic safety hazards, depending on the tool being used and the task at hand. PPE options may include safety glasses, gloves and hearing protection.


Pneumatic-powered tools can be a valuable and safe resource for completing a multitude of tasks, but they must be used correctly by properly trained individuals outfitted with the appropriate PPE. For more information about pneumatic-powered tools and safety and health precautions pertaining to these devices, visit www.osha.gov.