Safe Practices Around Compressed Gas Cylinders

It’s important employees know how to handle and store gas cylinders to prevent accidents.

By Alexandra Walsh

Compressed gas cylinders may look harmless, but the stored gases can be toxic, flammable, oxidizing, corrosive, or inert.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, hazards associated with compressed gases include oxygen displacement, fires, explosions, and exposures to toxic gases.

Mishandling compressed gas cylinders—which can have an internal pressure of up to 2500 pounds per square inch— can be disastrous. Dropping, tipping over, or exposing a cylinder to heat can cause weaknesses or cracks in the cylinder’s shell, which can result in a shrapnel-loaded explosion according to the American Welding Society.

Special storage, use, and handling precautions are necessary to control these hazards.

OSHA Standards

Compressed gas and equipment are addressed in specific OSHA standards for both general industry and the construction industry among others. Other relevant standards are established by the Compressed Gas Association (CGA), which is dedicated to developing and promoting safety standards and safe practices in the industrial gas industry.

It is the responsibility of employers to keep workers safe from compressed gas cylinders and their contents. As OSHA notes: “Employers must evaluate compressed gas hazards and have an emergency response plan that defines procedures and responsibilities to address emergencies.”

Train Workers

OSHA also states that employers have the responsibility to educate their workers on the chemical hazards of compressed gas cylinders by incorporating a hazard communication program, labels, and other forms of warnings. The cylinders should then be handled only by trained employees.

What is the primary goal of safety training with compressed gas cylinders? Teach employees best safety practices while they are working with the cylinders and learn how to prevent potential accidents by their safe storage, use, and transporting.

Key topics covered in the training should include:

  • Common and unique hazards associated with gas cylinders
  • How to properly label and identify gas cylinders
  • Gas cylinder storage techniques such as separation, securing, and signage
  • Safe handling, transporting, and using of compressed gas cylinders.

Cylinder Handling

The National Safety Council advocates a properly trained and monitored worker adhere to the following best practices to ensure safe handling of compressed gas cylinders:

  • Only accept those cylinders that have been approved for transporting.
  • Protect compressed air cylinders from cuts and scrapes.
  • Consult the supplier if there are any doubts about handling the gas.
  • Handle all cylinders with care and assume that each tank is full.
  • Never drop cylinders or allow two or more of them to strike each other.
  • Employees should never drop cylinders or allow two or more of them to strike each other.
  • Proper protective equipment must always be worn.
  • Keep oxidizers away from flammable gases.
  • Tanks should not be used for other purposes, such as rollers or supports.
  • Clearly mark “empty” (or “MT”) on all tanks to be returned to vendors with chalk and close the valves and replace all cylinders designed for protection caps.
  • If on a construction site and the cylinders must be handled, place them in a cradle or on a suitable platform. Do not lift cylinders using electromagnets.
  • Have the gas cylinder’s Safety Data Sheet easily accessible for workers.
  • See that gas cylinders are clearly labeled and easily identifiable. Workers should never use a container if they can’t read its label, nor should they use only a container’s color to identify its contents.
  • Close cylinder valves when not in use. “Closing the valve isolates the cylinder’s contents from the surrounding atmosphere and prevents corrosion and contamination of the valve” (OSHA). Keep valves pointed away from others when opening one.
  • Refrain from tampering with or altering cylinders, valves, or any safety relief devices.
  • Never place a gas cylinder near a heat source or allow a flame to contact any part of the container.

Cylinder Storage

Group and store compressed gases based on their hazard class. Provide an adequate amount of space or separate by partitions and post a sign that identifies the gas or hazard class being stored there.

The storage areas should be dry, well-drained, ventilated, and fire-resistant. Avoid subsurface storage. Cylinders can be stored in the open but they should be protected from the ground or continuous dampness to prevent their rusting.

Prevent exposure to salt, corrosive chemicals, or fumes. Cylinders can usually be stored in the sun but they must not exceed temperatures above 125°F. Always refer to the manufacturers’ storage requirements and Safety Data Sheets.

The storage areas should protect the cylinders from damage. Do not store on or close to unprotected platform edges or obstruct walkways or exits.

Wrap brackets, chains, or straps around the upper third of the cylinder to secure cylinders in storage or in use. Store charged and empty cylinders apart if possible. Empty cylinders have residual pressure and should still be handled as if they are full.

When storing compressed cylinders, the American Welding Society (AWS) recommends:

  • Secure cylinders upright with a chain or strap in a proper cylinder cart.
  • Store cylinders at least 20 feet from combustible materials in a dry, ventilated place.
  • Keep oxygen cylinders at least 20 feet from fuel gas cylinders.
  • Ensure valves are completely closed and any protection devices are secured.
  • Avoid storing cylinders in lockers—a leak could result in a dangerous gas buildup.
  • Use proper warning signs in areas where cylinders are stored.
  • Keep cylinders in a location free from vehicle traffic, excessive heat, and electrical circuits.
  • Keep empty cylinders away from full ones.

Cylinder Movement

Most incidents and injuries involving gas cylinders occur during handling or transportation, according to the AWS. When transporting cylinders, make sure they are loaded in such a way that allows as little movement as possible, and secure them to prevent them from banging together or falling over. Follow these tips:

  • Handle cylinders with care and avoid dropping or hitting them against anything.
  • Follow proper procedures and use the right PPE equipment: safety glasses, heavy-duty gloves, and protective footwear.
  • Check that safety measures such as caps or guards are securely installed.
  • Use a cart or hand truck instead of dragging or rolling cylinders.
  • Use proper cradles, nets, or platforms if using a crane.
  • Avoid lifting cylinders by their caps or guards or with magnets or slings—which can damage the valves.

Cylinder Inspection

Employers need to get out and visually inspect compressed gas cylinders. The CGA’s “Standards for Visual Inspection of Compressed Gas Cylinders” pamphlet gives detailed instructions and provides a sample inspection report form.

In general, inspect for exterior corrosion, denting, bulging, gouges, or digs and measure these flaws with a variety of devices and compare these to defined limits. Experience is important in the inspection of cylinders. Cylinder users who lack experience should return questionable cylinders to the gas supplier. Leaking regulators, cylinder valves, or other equipment should be taken out of service.

Cylinder Disposal

There are two general types of compressed gas cylinders: returnable (owned by the gas supplier) and non-returnable. Most suppliers will accept the return of their cylinders even if they are not empty. However, suppliers will not accept nonreturnable cylinders under any circumstances.

Disposal of non-returnable cylinders containing highly toxic or reactive gas can be expensive. Therefore, purchase compressed gases in returnable cylinders if available. If non-returnable cylinders are the only alternative, be prepared to pay for the cost of disposal.

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Compressed gas cylinders are dangerous and hazardous. They must be treated with utmost caution. But with proper attention, training, and following best practices, employees can work around these with the same confidence and assurance of being safe as if and when they’re performing any ordinary day-to-day job task.


Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.