Healthcare environments may pose a higher exposure risk for healthcare workers and patients because of the many hazardous chemicals present in these settings.

From operating rooms to storage rooms for anesthesia and other gases used for treatment, there is a wide variety of potentially hazardous gasses in the hospital environment. Chemicals are used to treat patients, such as with anesthetic or aerosolized medications, as well as to clean, disinfect and sterilize hospital work surfaces and medical supplies. Potentially hazardous chemicals may also be used as a fixative for tissue specimens, like toluene, xylene or formaldehyde, for example.

The CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have developed a helpful list of resources and guidelines regarding safe practices for healthcare workers.

Gases Found in Hospitals

While medical gases are usually stored and delivered to hospitals in cylinders, the most practical and cost-effective way for most hospitals to supply the necessary volume of medical air is on-site production. On-site manufacturing of medical air requires very complex equipment, and therefore should be installed meticulously and serviced with consistent maintenance to minimize the risk of leaks, contamination or breakdown.

Hospitals should also have Medical Air Sensors and testing procedures to monitor air quality and detect any rising levels of harmful gases. Healthcare facilities should also have sensors for oxygen/nitrogen sensors to monitor clean rooms and oxygen displacement in other areas of the hospitals. CO² sensors are necessary for generator rooms, where a leak may cause oxygen displacement, and hospitals should install refrigerant sensors in their Chiller Rooms to monitor the levels of combustible gases.

The Risks

Oxygen is used for a variety of patient treatments as well as medical procedures in the healthcare environment. While oxygen itself is not flammable, its gases can increase the risk of fire or explosion, since it facilitates combustion when combined with other gases if the mixture is activated with a spark. Even materials that are not normally flammable will ignite and burn in an environment that is oxygen-rich.

The hazards from oxygen and oxygen-depleting gases are often overlooked, and it is particularly important that the appropriate sensors are installed and maintained in medical gas storage rooms where the giant gas cylinders are stored. A leak of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, or argon can displace the oxygen in a room quite quickly, and if the concentration of oxygen decreases even slightly (by just 1 – 2 percent), people immediately begin to feel the effects. Even healthy individuals will be unable to work strenuously and their coordination may be affected.

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