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Dangerous Gases

A well-managed cylinder control program should be a top priority for every industrial, educational and research facility.

by Ed Isom
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A Cylinder Management Program Ensures Cylinder Integrity and Safety While Managing Life Cycle Costs

The September 2010 issue of Lab Manager featured an excellent article, “Compressed Gas Cylinder Safety” (p. 62 or, in which Vince McLeod gave an overview of the topic. This article seeks to extend the discussion and get down to some specifics of how to actively manage on-site gas cylinders.

First, let me start by framing the issue:

  • Each gas has its own handling and storage protocols and limitations.
  • With the exception of inert gases, safety almost invariably decreases the longer the gases are stored.
  • Unlike with bulk chemicals, it is often more expensive to remove and properly discard gas cylinder contents than it is to buy the materials in the first place.
  • The older the cylinder, the harder it is to process and the more dangerous it becomes.
  • The cost of disposal is directly related to the age of the contents and the condition of the cylinder and safety cap or valve.

As demonstrated in these photos, even single cylinders can cause catastrophic explosions.

For all these reasons, gas cylinders present financial, safety and handling challenges from the day they arrive on-site until the day they are used and/or removed.

To put things in further perspective, last year the cost to my company, Clean Harbors, to dispose of gas cylinders, ranged between $20/unit and $176,000/unit. That’s quite a spread. Obviously, some of the cylinders contained highly dangerous gases and were in poor condition. It is expensive to process unstable cylinders. If we have to overpack a dangerous cylinder, such as hydrogen bromide, into secondary containment, transport it and properly dispose of it, it can cost from $40,000 to $50,000. This is in contrast to the $275 to $1,500, depending on actual cylinder size, that it can cost for Department of Transportation (DOT) shippable containers.

So, although on-site gas cylinder management requires an investment, it is worth it from safety, process management and cost standpoints.

There is another outside force that is driving cylinder management at U.S.-based companies. The Department of Homeland Security now conducts inspections and audits of dangerous gases in labs and industrial settings to ensure that adequate controls and security measures are in place. An effective management program will avoid costly, last-minute cleanups and mandated remediation that could result from the audits.

Dedicated resources improve management

The graphic outlines the cylinder management approach that we use at our La Porte, Texas, and other treatment, storage and disposal facilities, and that we also recommend and use on generator sites.

Given McLeod’s full-cycle overview, this article concentrates on the second step, “Label/Date—Establish a Testing Schedule,” using a barcode database tracking system.

Typically, gas cylinders are managed with the same mind-set and using the same controls as bulk chemicals or other hazardous wastes. They are assigned to a waste or environmental coordinator who may not have any special expertise in managing gases. The coordinator assigns cylinders to a storage area—often outdoors—and then forgets about them. Given that the gases are secured in metal cylinders, little or no consideration is given to dissociation and other dynamics of the specific contents.

Formalize a program

The first step is to recognize that compressed gases require a separate management program that tracks the material throughout its life cycle. Companies should start by designating a facility-wide gas cylinder manager who is trained in cylinder management techniques and is specifically trained on the materials that are used in the local production or research environment. This person’s job is to keep track of the status of all gas cylinders at the site, both pre-use inventory and partially used or depleted cylinders that are considered waste and are slated for disposal.

Some companies and labs outsource this function to a service provider. This creates a measurable functional operation. It brings in a vendor that has the core competency, technology and business focus to manage the task day in and day out, and it facilitates ongoing inspections to ensure facility-wide cylinder management compliance.

Use a barcode management system

Regardless of whether the cylinder management program is handled in-house or is outsourced, it should be capable of pinpointing the chemical contents, location, age, disposal date and other important information for every cylinder. At the outset, this requires creating a master inventory that includes all on-site cylinders at every location.

This sounds simple, but it usually requires the cooperation of all the cost centers that stockpile and control the cylinders that they use in their labs or production processes. We find that this is also the best time to consolidate the storage areas and facilitate centralized management.

Once an accurate inventory has been developed, the manager is responsible for controlling the inventory and overseeing the movement, use and disposition of the cylinders. We recommend a barcode-based inventory management system that starts at the receiving dock and ends with destruction by a disposal company.

Homegrown spreadsheets and databases can work for smaller operations, but it is often more efficient to go with specific barcode/software application packages or outsourced service provider solutions. These applications provide a good template for cylinder control that can be customized to local conditions and reporting requirements.

The cylinders should be registered in the system immediately upon arrival. We input all the required information (preferably, most of it is directly imported from supporting documentation and database resources) and apply the barcode to the cylinder. We use rugged 4” x 6” paper labels that are stuck to the cylinders. Scanning the barcode provides a window into all the supporting information for each cylinder, including:

  • Arrival date
  • Cylinder size
  • Expiration date
  • Inspection dates
  • Location
  • Movements within the site
  • Contents
  • Operator ID/handling history
  • Material Safety Data Sheet
  • Cylinder condition
  • Stabilizer/inhibitor renewal date
  • Departure date (carrier, destination, etc.)
  • Cylinder number
  • Disposal/destruction date
  • Cylinder type
Administrative data includes:
  • Cost center
  • Cost center changes (if units are transferred)
  • Supplier
  • Date of removal from inventory
  • Purchase order
  • Other customized fields

Barcodes in action

The operator scans the barcode on the newly received cylinder and a separate barcode that records the receiving dock location. The two barcodes are scanned using a handheld device; the cylinder/location information is time stamped and assigned to the operator. This dual-scanning process is repeated every time the cylinder is moved. The location codes should be specific (row C in storage area 3, for instance) in order to immediately locate every cylinder based on the information in the database record. Ideally, the system does not rely on any information keyed in by the operator, which simplifies the process and cuts down on input errors.

Scanned information is uploaded from the handheld scanner to the cylinder management system in batch mode through a base station or in real time over a wireless network. Once in the system, the data can be sorted to update aging, expiration, inventory, cost center and other reports. The cylinder management database can be set up to instantly update online, Web-based reports and export data directly into other corporate financial and management reporting systems.

Expiration notification

Perhaps the most important feature of an automated cylinder management program is its ability to flag cylinders that are due for inspection or are approaching expiration thresholds. Alarms and color-coded reports highlight the cylinders that are approaching expiration and should be removed from inventory. Using the aging data, the cylinder manager can notify the disposal company in a timely manner to schedule a “milk run” pickup, as opposed to a specially scheduled run. The up-front notification also allows the manager to review the full inventory and include additional cylinders in the shipment to further reduce unit costs.

A properly run management system will also export manifest data to the disposal company, further expediting the removal process. This expiration notification feature alone can save enough money to justify the investment in the management system—not to mention the increased safety and compliance that come from a well-managed process.

Finally, a cylinder management program can track cylinders through the disposal process, enabling the generator to certify that the contents were properly handled through destruction.