Safety first: PPE and the HVAC&R professional

Safety first: PPE and the HVAC&R professional

By Ilana Koegelenberg

Our industry isn’t exactly classed as the ‘most dangerous’ line of work, but if you don’t stick to the safety guidelines and regulations, things can go horribly wrong. What do HVAC&R contractors/technicians need to know to do their job safely?

Some sites are more dangerous than others. Usually the refrigeration side of things can be trickier than the HVAC side. Still, exact rules and regulations are in place to protect the worker on site (and to protect the equipment from damage, too). Whether workers are working at heights or in a -20°C cold store, personal protective equipment (PPE) is crucial in ensuring safety.

Alcohol and drug testing are becoming more popular in some
factories to ensure the health and safety of all involved. 

Image credit: Amazon

According to the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act, any employees working in a situation where they may be exposed to risk or potential risk are required to wear PPE. Examples of PPE include safety shoes, hard hats, gloves, aprons, eye protection, and ear protection.

PPE is essential for keeping front line maintenance and engineering technicians safe on the job in institutional and commercial facilities. But these products — including gloves, goggles, face shields and boots — can only deliver the desired protection if managers specify them properly and ensure technicians use them appropriately.

According to the OHS Act, any employees working in a situation where they may be exposed to risk or potential risk are required to wear PPE

To ensure that technicians are as safe as possible, managers need to address a series of important issues. These include: performing a workplace assessment to identify and control physical and health hazards; identifying and providing appropriate PPE for employees; training employees in the use and care of the PPE; maintaining PPE, including replacing worn or damaged products; and periodically reviewing, updating, and evaluating the effectiveness of the PPE programme.


While there are virtually unlimited numbers of dangers facing HVAC&R contractors, here are the top seven safety concerns for HVAC firms and workers:

1 - Wiring-related risks: Of course, the primary risk for any electrical equipment work is electrocution. When working with wiring day in and day out, it is easy to become complacent about picking up a cable or wire and attempting to work with it. It is crucial to always treat every wire as live and handle all wiring and cabling with the care it deserves.

2 - Equipment-based risks: Specific risks are addressed below, but the very size, weight, and complexity of the majority of HVAC equipment presents special dangers to personnel. Moving components, such as fans and pulleys present unique dangers, especially when they are part of larger units. The many sharp edges and components of an HVAC unit present multiple risks of cuts, punctures, scrapes and other dangers.

3. Environmental/exposure risks: The chemicals used as refrigerants can be a danger to personnel, especially when working with larger and older systems that have developed leaks. Another major factor is the issue of asbestos exposure, often a concern in the same older facilities.
4. Fatigue-related issues: Each of the other risks listed here are magnified by the factors of fatigue and complacency. It is possible to execute a dangerous connection or other operation hundreds of times and then make a critical error at some point because of fatigue or inattention. Many HVAC installations are made under tight deadlines to meet construction schedules and this increases the chance for a team of installers to be worked to a point where such accidents are more likely. The other side of this issue is complacency, or executing a dangerous step so many times that there is a loss of appreciation for its inherent danger.
5. Safety violations: Many accidents occur when one person is injured because another breaks a standard safety procedure, such as removing an interlock or failing to secure tools properly when working at a height. Following safety rules is not just important for the individual — it is essential for protecting co-workers as well.
6. Burns and related injuries: The danger of working with extremely hot and moving components often exists when performing regular or emergency maintenance or repairs on installed equipment. This is especially the case when some parts seem to be off and cool while other components nearby are operating at extreme temperatures. The larger the installation being serviced, the greater the risk of misjudging the status of any one unit or component.
7. Falls and crushing injuries: When installing or removing larger HVAC units, the work often involves use of third-party cranes and equipment. Workers have to pay special attention to risks when working at heights or when moving multi-ton HVAC components.

Safe working environment 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires a manager to furnish “a place of employment which is free from recognised hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees”. As a result, managers need to identify and address workplace hazards, and PPE is one component in reducing technicians’ exposure to these dangers.

But OSHA regulations — including Standard 1910.132 regulating the use of PPE — specify that using PPE must be the last option for controlling workplace hazards. Managers first must use engineering and administrative controls to reduce or eliminate hazards before relying on the use of PPE. When managers determine that these controls are not feasible or effective in reducing hazardous exposures to acceptable levels, then they must determine if PPE would better protect their workers.

It is important to follow the safety regulations when working at heights. 
Image cerdit: Pixabay

Managers can identify workplace hazards by performing a job-hazard analysis. The analysis should consider the basic hazard categories: impact, penetration, compression or rollover, chemical, heat, harmful dust, light, and radiation.


By law, the employer may not permit any employee to work “unless such an employee uses the required safety equipment or facility provided”.

It is the responsibility of the employee to obey health and safety rules and procedures.

An extract from the OHS Act (1993), General Safety Regulations has the following to say about PPE and facilities:

  1. Every employer and every user of machinery shall make an evaluation of the risk attached to any condition or situation which may arise from the activities of such employer or user, as the case may be, and to which persons at a workplace or in the course of their employment or in connection with the use of machinery are exposed, and he shall take such steps as may under the circumstances be necessary to make such condition or situation safe.

  2. Where it is not practicable to safeguard the condition or situation contemplated in sub-regulation (1), the employer or user of machinery, as the case may be, shall take steps to reduce the risk as much as is practicable, and shall provide free of charge and maintain in a good and clean condition such safety equipment and facilities as may be necessary to ensure that any person exposed to any such condition or situation at a workplace or in the course of his employment or on premises where machinery is used is rendered safe.

  3. Taking into account the nature of the hazard that is to be countered, and without derogating from the general duties imposed on employers and users of machinery by sub-regulations (1) and (2), the safety equipment and facilities contemplated in sub-regulation (2) shall include, as may be necessary:
    1. Suitable goggles, spectacles, face shields, welding shields, visors, hard hats, protective helmets, caps, gloves, gauntlets, aprons, jackets, capes, sleeves, leggings, spats, gaiters, protective footwear, protective overalls, or any similar safety equipment or facility of a type that will effectively prevent bodily injury;
    2. Waterproof clothing, high-visibility clothing, chemical-resistant clothing, low temperature clothing, chain mail garments, waders, fire retardant or flame-proof clothing, ice-jackets, or any similar safety equipment of a type that will effectively protect the wearer thereof against harm;
    3. Belts, harnesses, nets, fall arresters, lifelines, safety hooks, or any similar equipment of a type that will effectively protect persons against falls;
    4. Mats, barriers, locking-out devices, safety signs, or any similar facility that will effectively prevent slipping, unsafe entry or unsafe conditions;
    5. Protective ointments, ear-muffs, ear-plugs, respirators, breathing apparatus, masks; air lines, hoods, helmets, or any similar safety equipment or facility of a type that will effectively protect against harm;
    6. Suitable insulating material underfoot where persons work on a floor made of metal stone, concrete or other similar material; and
    7. Generally, such safety equipment or facilities as may be necessary to render the persons concerned safe.

  4. An employer or a user of machinery, as the case may be, shall take steps to ensure that no safety equipment or facility provided as required by this or any other regulation is removed from a workplace or from premises where machinery is used, except for purposes of cleaning, repair, maintenance, modification, mending or replacement, and no person shall remove any such safety equipment or facility from a workplace or premises where machinery is used, except for the aforesaid purposes.

  5. An employer shall instruct his employees in the proper use, maintenance and limitations of the safety equipment and facilities provided.

  6. An employer shall not require or permit any employee to work unless such an employee uses the required safety equipment or facility provided in terms of this or any other regulation.

  7. The provisions of this regulation shall not be construed as derogating from the provisions of any specific regulation prescribing specific safety equipment or facilities.

The type of PPE required will depend on the type of work being done. 
Image credit: Pixabay

HVAC&R safety

When doing HVAC&R work, there is a potential risk in the water treatment chemicals; hot/cold exposures; and excess noise. The recommended PPE include chemical resistant gloves, thermal insulated gloves, safety glasses, and hearing protection. When using large quantities of chemicals, a face shield and goggles are also recommended.

When working with ammonia, it’s a whole different ball game. Check our regular contributor Andrew Perks’s column “Back to basics” for tips on how to work with ammonia safely. The OHS Act regulations are designed to protect employees from risks associated with hazardous substances at work. It is a legal requirement that a copy of the OHS Act is available on site for reference by all employees.

A hazardous installation is where any substance is produced, processed, used, handled or stored in such form and quantity that it has the potential to cause a hazardous incident. The OHS Act covers all hazardous substances used, handled, processed, stored, transported or disposed of at work.

When it comes to working at heights, have a look at Grant Laidlaw’s “Support” article of June 2016.

PPE is vital when doing dangerous jobs such as welding. 
Image credit: Pixabay

If you work at heights of 1.5m or higher, your employer must make sure the equipment you use is safe for you and the type of work you do. Your employer must (General Safety Regulation 6 of the OHSA):

  1. Train you in the safety precautions you must take;
  2. Do a risk assessment for the work that involves using ladders and scaffolding;
  3. Give you the PPE you need for working with ladders and scaffolding, e.g. hard hats, safety boots and safety gloves;
  4. Take precautionary measures to reduce the risk of falling or slipping, e.g. make sure you wear the correct shoes;
  5. Keep ladders and scaffolding equipment in good, working condition with monthly inspections;
  6. Make sure these monthly inspections are done by people who’ve been properly trained to inspect this type of equipment (General Safety Regulation 13A);
  7. Train you to inspect the ladders and scaffolding (or other height equipment like harnesses and ropes) before and after you use it (Construction Regulation 8, 10, 15 and 17); and
  8. Dispose of any height equipment older than five years, e.g. with a waste disposal company in your area.

PPE is also essential when working in cold stores and refrigerated areas where it is vital for protecting employees from extreme temperatures. Cooling of body parts may result in various cold injuries — non-freezing injuries, freezing injuries — and hypothermia, which is the most serious. Non-freezing cold injuries include chilblain, immersion foot, and trench foot. Frost-nip and frostbite are freezing injuries.

Toes, fingers, ears, and nose are at greatest risk because these areas do not have major muscles to produce heat. In addition, the body will preserve heat by favouring the internal organs and thus reducing the flow of blood to the extremities under cold conditions. Hands and feet tend to get cold more quickly than the torso because:

  • They lose heat more rapidly since they have a higher surface area-to-volume ratio; and
  • They are more likely to be in contact with colder surfaces than other parts of the body.

If the eyes are not protected with goggles in high wind chill conditions, the corneas of the eyes may freeze. The most severe cold injury is hypothermia, which occurs from excessive loss of body heat and the consequent lowering of the inner core temperature (internal temperature of the body). Hypothermia can be fatal. (Check out Grant Laidlaw’s full article on this in the November 2016 edition of RACA Journal.)

In a cold store environment, PPE will protect workers from the extreme temperatures and related injuries. 
Image credit:

PPE is also imperative when there is welding involved. Here you will also need a welding helmet and a welding jacket to keep you safe. Eye protection is crucial when welding. Eye injury can occur from the intense light and radiation that a welding arc can produce. Eye injury can also occur from hot slag that can fly off from the weld during cooling, chipping, or grinding.

Protect your eyes from welding light by wearing a welder’s helmet fitted with a filter shade that is suitable for the type of welding you are doing. Always wear safety glasses with side shields or goggles when chipping or grinding a work piece if you are not wearing a welding helmet.

Drug and alcohol testing

It’s not only about keeping employees safe; it’s about ensuring everyone and the workspace/site is safe. That is where drug and alcohol testing comes in.

Health and safety is of paramount concern, especially in industrial sectors such as HVAC due to the frequent use of machinery, costly equipment, and the impact of downtime. As such, many companies conduct alcohol and drug testing on employees and contractors before they are allowed to enter the businesses premises.

“Initially, there was a focus on only testing for alcohol consumption, but as we have seen an increase in use (and affordability) of drugs such as dagga and nyope, these companies are having to include drug testing as part of their health and safety policies and procedures,” explains Rhys Evans, director at Alco-Safe.

PPE is also essential when working in cold stores and refrigerated areas where it is vital for protecting employees from extreme temperatures.

Alco-Safe encourages all companies that conduct alcohol and drug testing to complement their substance abuse programmes with educational programmes for all employees, unions, and health and safety personnel. “The programmes should emphasise first and foremost that the companies are conducting the testing for the safety of their employees and everyone working on their sites,” says Evans. The programmes should also educate employees on the effects of taking drugs, the different types of drug tests, why that particular test is best suited for their environment and can detect how long the drug has been in a person’s system. “It is also important for companies to educate and involve unions and obtain their buy-in, whereby this information is also communicated to union members.”

Safety is key

Ultimately, it is better to be safe than sorry. I have seen some terrible pictures of chemical burns come through my inbox in international newsletters bemoaning the lack of compliance to safety on a global level. There are a fair amount of articles on people falling through roofs too and ones on employers getting sued for ‘endangering’ workers on site by not sticking to the OHS Act. You do not want to be that person who learns the hard way, so make sure you protect yourself — and your staff.




Pin It

Add comment

Security code

Home A/C Safety first: PPE and the HVAC&R professional

Connect with us

Talk To Us

Available Monday - Friday, 8 AM - 4 PM