Hydraulics are incredibly useful and have given us the ability to overcome massive obstacles, accomplish unimaginable goals, and make every day jobs much, much easier.
However, they are not without significant risks.
Extreme fluid pressure and heavy loads make working with hydraulics potentially dangerous, and numerous accidents have occurred while working with hydraulic equipment. Thankfully, there are numerous procedures that can be used to greatly reduce the risk of injury or death.
In this article, we’re going to lay out the potential dangers of hydraulics, as well as precautions that can be put in place to help prevent them.
The Dangers of Industrial Hydraulics
There are many potentially dangerous situations that can arise on a job site when hydraulic equipment is being used. While there is an exhaustive list, here some of the most common dangers.
One of the greatest dangers with any heavy duty equipment is the potential for human error. Some factors include poor communication between workers, improper training, or discarding of safety work gear.
When operators don’t communicate properly, it’s much more likely that harmful accidents will occur. Also, a poorly trained operator is much more likely to inflict damage to a work site, break equipment, or harm fellow workers.
Improperly equipped or dressed employees are more vulnerable to burns, cuts, abrasions or eye damage.
Failure of A Pressurized System
With any pressurized system, there is a potential for the system to fail. Over time, without proper maintenance or replacement, the components of a hydraulic system will wear out and weaken. When these damaged places become thin, there is a much greater possibility of hydraulic oil leaks.
This can lead to serious consequences, such as:
- Exposure to Hot Hydraulic Fluid – While hydraulic fluid is not always hot, when it is, the temperature alone can be dangerous. Should a connection or hydraulic line burst, hot fluids can be released, inflicting significant damage to human skin, eyes, and face.
- Fluid Penetrating the Skin – Even more concerning than hot fluid is the extreme pressure that would release the oil in the event of a line break. The greater the pressure, the greater the danger to operators.
“The insidious nature of fluid penetration accidents makes it hard to identify issues until it’s simply too late. Increased exposure has however helped with training initiatives in the engineering sector.” Ben Swift (hydramech.com.au)
When fluid is released at a high pressure, it can penetrate human skin. The entry site of the fluid may appear small, but it can cause great injury underneath the surface of the skin, including tissue damage, the need for amputation, or even death.
Contaminated Hydraulic Fluid
Contaminated fluids can damage the lines, cause internal and external leakage, or break down components.
Contaminated fluids also run the risk of causing an entire system failure. A potential danger in this case would actually be an absence of pressure. In this case, it could cause hydraulic equipment to drop unexpectedly, damaging whatever is beneath its load.
Hydraulic failure statistic: Worksafe Queensland (worksafe.qld.gov.au)
While it may not be possible to prevent danger in every situation, there are numerous preventative measures that can be taken to diminish the chance of injury or death.
Safety Measure #1: Employee Training and Safety Gear
One of the biggest risk reduction strategies is to train employees in proper equipment use. Yes, task training is a common resource used in accident prevention, but in the case of hydraulic equipment, it can’t be emphasized enough.
Maintenance persons should be trained in proper troubleshooting procedures, and equipment operators should be trained to communicate with fellow workers and on the proper use of the equipment.
It’s also critical to ensure that employees are trained to utilize proper safety gear for their job, including safety helmets, eye protection, gloves, and a proper uniform.
Safety Measure #2: Using Equipment Within Designed Parameters
When working with hydraulic equipment, it’s critical to note the intended use for the equipment. Using equipment improperly, like lifting loads beyond the machine’s recommended weight load, can cause unnecessary wear or system failure. It’s also important that no components are used outside of the equipment specifications.
Safety Measure #3: Regular Maintenance
Besides proper employee training, one of the biggest preventative measures is ongoing maintenance. Hydraulic wear can be managed. A good preventive maintenance program can greatly reduce the risk of equipment failure, or safety concerns. Ideally, the following maintenance steps will be followed:
- Deactivate the Equipment Before Maintenance – It’s extremely important when maintenance is being performed that a system is not live. Before someone begins working on a pressurized system, all precautions should be taken to ensure that the pressure is removed from the lines, and that the machine is locked so that it cannot become live during maintenance.
- Examine for Wear and Tear – During maintenance, the machine should be carefully examined. The maintenance worker should look for damaged or worn components and connections, and ensure that the relief valves are functioning and properly adjusted for pressure. A maintenance person should also check filtration systems and make sure that the fluid levels are correct.
- Cleaning Up – Should any hydraulic spills occur on the equipment or on the ground on the worksite, the maintenance worker should clean up the spills in order to prevent a potentially hazardous situation. If any hydraulic fluid should come in contact with skin, it should be cleaned off with soap and water.
Safety Measure #4: Avoiding Dangerous Scenarios
Precautionary measures should always be considered when working around heavy machinery or hydraulic equipment. For instance, in the case of system failure, it’s important to have a proper blocking system in place for suspended loads. Employees should never work under suspended loads unless a proper blocking or safety device is in place.
Because many hydraulic fluids are flammable, it is critical to always have a fire extinguisher nearby. This is especially important during repairs or maintenance of the equipment.
Finally, because of the serious nature of fluid injections, it is imperative that an injected person go to the ER immediately. To help prevent fluid injection into the skin, never use a finger or any other body part to stop a fluid spray.
While there are many potential hazards on a hydraulic jobsite, careful maintenance, employee training, and working within the specifications and manufacturers recommendations for the equipment, will greatly reduce the risks.
Initiatives like the PerforM case study conducted in the Council of the City of Gold Coast highlighted key ways in which risks could be mitigated.
Failure to do this can lead to significant injury or even death. So when it comes to hydraulics, always play it safe.