Safe handling of compressed gas cylinders

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The cautionary tale of Little Red Riding Hood visiting her Granny, only to find that the old lady had been replaced by a wolf, is being re-enacted up and down the country every day – even when it’s not pantomime season.

But it’s not so easy to spot, because neither little girl nor wolf are involved. Instead, thousands of innocent workers are unwittingly cast in the role of Red Riding Hood, with the part of the wolf taken by cylinders full of industrial gases.

The story is one of familiarity breeding contempt; of why being too trusting can end in disaster; of not fully understanding what’s around you; and of failure to treat a ‘hidden hazard’ with all the respect it deserves.

Cylinders full of industrial gases, even the inert ones, hold tremendous power. If one were to fall over and have its valve knocked off, the rush of escaping gas would turn the cylinder into a torpedo capable of blasting through a concrete wall. If the gas were flammable, and were to catch fire, it would do so with explosive force, ripping through buildings 100 metres away or more, and massively increasing the fire load – the amount of combustible material in a given area.

And that’s why as reported in the Worksop Guardian a number of residents of the Lincolnshire village of Blyton had to leave their homes recently when fire broke out in a nearby workshop containing acetylene cylinders.

Such cylinders are like unexploded bombs, as one American resident found out when he left one in his truck overnight without closing its valve properly. Opening the door in the morning caused enough of a spark to ignite the gas and air mixture, blowing the roof off the truck and scarring his face. But, treated with the same respect Little Red Riding Hood showed for the wolf, they can be controlled and serve the purpose they’re intended for. Indeed, we’ve been using acetylene in industrial processes for about 150 years.

And that’s also why you have a duty in law to consider the safe storage of acetylene and other explosive gases as part of your fire risk assessment. That makes sure you comply with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 and the DSEAR Safety Regulations (Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002).

A guide to the safe handling of gas cylinders

1. Always turn off valves tight
2. Fit return arrestors to bagging (the pipes between tools and cylinders)
3. Store upright in proper racks
4. Chain them in place so they can’t fall or be knocked over
5. Transport them upright, and secured to the vehicle
6. Never transport them in a closed vehicle
7. Use dedicated cupboards (the ‘room next door’ is not really enough; remember what we said about the explosive force involved) Dedicated storage cabinets which are independently fire chamber tested to BS EN14470-1 to prove that, in a fire, the temperature inside the cabinet will stay below 50ºC for at least an hour and a half to allow sufficient time for safe evacuation and for the emergency services to attend.

The British Compressed Gases Association has some really useful guides and leaflets to download about the safe handling of gas cylinders.