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Safety when working on and around airbags

deployed airbags
An airbag may be a safety item when it is out on the road but when it reaches our yards it becomes a hazard and you need to handle that hazard correctly.
In this article, Safety and Health practioner, Phil Wass takes a close look at issues surrounding the safe handling of airbags. Phil is an advisor to MVDA (Motor Vehicle Dismantlers' Association) members and a regular contributer to their quarterly magazine. It is a long article but the information is essential knowledge for vehicle dismantlers and depolluters.

Whilst many areas of work have specific safety legislation covering them (e.g. the use of work equipment, the use of lifting equipment, etc.) there are many areas of health and safety which are so specific to a particular workplace that they do not carry their own ‘specific’ legislation. However, this does not mean that we can ignore safe working when carrying out such work.

Section 2 of ‘The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974’ states that ‘it shall be the duty of every employer to ensure so far as is reasonably practicable the health safety and welfare at work of all his employees’. Meanwhile, Regulation 3 of ‘The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999’ states that ‘every employer shall make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the health and safety of his employees to which they are exposed at work’. So if something goes wrong whilst one of your employees are working on or around vehicle airbags then this is where the enforcing authority (e.g. the HSE) will start their attack on what you have done (or have not done) to prevent this happening. There is at least one more piece of legislation that applies to specific work in your yard such as this as well but I will come to this a little bit later.

Now where there is specific legislation around specific hazards within a workplace it is quite easy to access ‘approved codes of practice’ and ‘guidance literature’ to help you to comply with what the law actually requires you to do in order to comply. However, with something as specific as work on or around vehicle air bags in vehicle dismantling yards I appreciate that it is sometimes quite difficult to access good quality guidance and hence this article will help many of you to better understand and be aware of what is required of you.

Buying is now in front of a screen
Phil Wass is a Chartered Safety and Health practitioner and has a Masters Degree in Occupational Health and Safety. He is Managing Director of Wass Management Limited who specialise in all aspects of health and safety training, advice and guidance. Phil is an advisor to the Motor Vehcile Dismantlers' Association and understands the needs of the industry. He regularly carries out work for MVDA members.

If you have any health and safety issues, visit Wass Management Limited, email Phil or you can contact him on 01773 541441
Vehicle airbags have been a significant vehicle safety development in recent years and they will have saved many lives and reduced injuries to many others as well. Within a vehicle they are a ‘safety device’ however at the end of life of that vehicle (in a dismantlers yard) they become just the opposite - ‘a serious workplace hazard’ - for anyone encountering them and not fully understanding the specific hazards involved. They can in fact cause harm to people at work via both physical injuries as well as poisoning.

If they are handled correctly, the likelihood of an accident involving an airbag or seat belt pre-tensioner is low but appropriate controls are most definitely necessary to keep this likelihood of harm at a low and acceptable level. An airbag will deploy and inflate within around 40 milliseconds. The chemical in an un-deployed airbag is sodium azide which is acutely toxic and is just as dangerous (and will have similar effects on a human being) as cyanide. Therefore ‘The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2005’ (COSHH) is also a relevant piece of general legislation which needs to be considered as well as part of your overall risk control process.

Even the static electricity from your body may be enough (under the right circumstances) to set off an airbag if you come into contact with the connector pins – which should therefore be taped over after removal. However, this is just one example of what needs to be included within a safe working practice for such activities.

Lets look at what other controls will also be required

  • open all vehicle windows before starting work
  • disconnect the battery for a minimum of 20 minutes before starting the work
  • keep all untrained employees at least 20 metres away from the activity
  • only allow a fully trained employee to carry out the work
  • never place your head or body close to the front of an un-deployed airbag when removing it from the vehicle
  • always carry the airbag module with the trim cover facing away from you
  • never place an airbag module (or steering wheel assembly fitted with an airbag) face (i.e. trim side) down or with the trim against a hard surface
  • never attempt to repair or modify an airbag
  • if work is required on an airbag module (e.g. testing) it must be mounted securely on a bench or jig which allows sufficient space for the bag to inflate freely should it be triggered accidentally
  • never expose airbag modules to excessive heat (over 90 degrees C), impact, electrical current or radio transmitters

So far we have just concentrated on the health and safety issues involved however we must at this stage also consider the environmental impacts of handling these items in a yard as well. These are:-
  • liaison will be needed with your local waste contractors for whilst some will be happy for airbags and seat belt pre-tensioners to be disposed of and recycled as ‘normal waste’ others may insist that they are treated as ‘hazardous waste’
  • it is definitely an illegal practice to dispose of explosives (from such items) as ‘normal waste’
  • domestic / commercial waste bins must not be used for disposing of un-deployed airbags or seat belt pre-tensioners

  • Next let us consider the storage implications involved when handling airbags and seat belt pre-tensioners as well which will be as follows:-
    • storage cabinets should meet the the requirements for ‘mode B’ registration
    • they should have no exposed steel
    • they should be easy to keep clean
    • it must be possible to close / lock them
    • the container should be kept away from oils, paints and other flammable materials
    • the container should be kept away from areas where ‘hot works’ may be carried out (e.g. welding, brazing, etc.)
    • the container should be kept away from electrical cables, sockets, distribution boards, etc.
    • the container should be secured to a wall (or floor) if at all possible
    • the container should be kept dry at all times

    So we hope that this article will have been useful in making you more aware of the hazards from working on and around airbags and pre-tensioners and in informing you of exactly what controls you should have in place to ensure safe working at such times.

    Remember you should have a documented risk assessment in place for this activity and you should also have put together a safe working procedure to cover the activity as well.

    You should then have decided who is trained and competent to carry out this work (and who is not) and those who are authorised to carry out the task should be signed off against procedures for safe working whilst those not authorised should have been made aware of the need to never contemplate getting involved in the activity and of ensuring they stay away from the work activity when it is in progress (as well as keeping away from the stored items awaiting disposal).

    I clearly recognised a need for some technical input from someone with much more practical experience of this subject than myself and I am therefore indebted to Ray Kirk of Albert Looms for ensuring that the technical content of this article.

    If this article has been helpful and you would like more of these ‘specific’ vehicle dismantling and depollution safety topics to be covered in this way in the future then please let us know.

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