Under pressure from COVID22 April 2021

While the inspection of pressure vessels is of huge importance, the HSE has understandably made allowances for the way that COVID has impacted this. But what exactly are the rules – and what actions remain non-negotiable?
By Brian Wall

Coronavirus may have played havoc with the well-being of the nation, and the way industry tries to cope with its financial consequences and beyond, yet one thing remains immutable: when it comes to the Pressure Systems Safety Regulations (PSSR) 2000, the legal obligation to ensure work plant and equipment is maintained and safe to use remains firmly in place.

That is the latest ruling from the Health & Safety Executive, which is insisting that an effective maintenance regime relating to PSSR is essential to ensure the safety of equipment. That means dutyholders must make certain that thorough examination and testing continues. It is non-negotiable, too, as, pandemic or not, it is still a legal requirement to be fulfilled and should be carried out wherever possible.

That is not to say that the HSE inspectors will come down remorselessly on any organisation that fails to meet these obligations. As the executive points out: “HSE will adopt a pragmatic and proportionate approach towards enforcement action, if the effects of the coronavirus outbreak prevent dutyholders meeting their thorough maintenance and testing duties for equipment in use, as long as they ensure the equipment remains safe” (https://is.gd/osejon).


HSE’s latest guidance is at pains to stress that work plant and equipment must remain safe to use, while crucially also providing a framework for decisionmaking. For those struggling to meet the exacting nature of the regulations right now, there will be some relief to hear that the HSE is not intent on enforcing the letter of the law unremittingly, but committed instead to an “overarching scheme of thorough examination and testing”.

Helpfully, for those unsure where the line in the sand might be drawn, the HSE has set out a risk-based approach to apply, “when all attempts to ensure thorough examination and testing have been exhausted”. Where there is non-compliance with statutory requirements directly attributable to the coronavirus outbreak, the enforcement response in these circumstances will normally be to take no action, “if the only failing is that thorough examination and testing is not carried out by the required date”.


That said, equipment should only be used outside its test regime where dutyholders can demonstrate it is critical for essential work and can still be operated safely. They must be able to demonstrate that:

  • Reasonable attempts have been made to carry out thorough examination and testing
  • Competent advice has been obtained to produce a thorough assessment of the increased risk
  • Appropriate action has been taken to manage it.

As the British Compressed Air Society confirms, however, government measures designed to contain the outbreak of COVID-19 have not impacted on the legal obligations set out within the PSSR regulations. “Dutyholders have a legal responsibility to maintain work equipment and carry out thorough examinations, written schemes and statutory inspections. These legal duties exist to help manage the significant hazard that the failure of such equipment can pose. Failure to comply with these duties can increase the risk of harm to workers and members of the public significantly.”

The BCAS goes on to state that, under certain circumstances and with the agreement of a suitable competent person, some legislation does allow thorough examinations/statutory inspections to be postponed, but adds: “Even if such options are taken, it remains the dutyholder’s responsibility to ensure that the equipment is safe to use.”

For numerous kinds of pressure systems, from small air storage vessels, to boilers, to large power generating plants, ongoing in-service examinations are a critical part of the process, states the HSE. While these examinations are all equally significant, the first in-service examination serves as the checkpoint whereby a written scheme of examination governing the inspection of any pressure systems is drawn up. “Without this inspection, the ongoing inspection and maintenance regime may not be adequate, leading to potential compromise of safety integrity,” states the HSE. “If there is any delay in carrying out this examination, there should be confirmation in writing between dutyholder and inspection body, outlining the timescale as to when the examination will take place.” The WSE will then need to be reviewed periodically throughout the life of the system/equipment.


So, to whom do the PSSR regulations apply? In short, to owners and users of pressure systems containing ‘relevant fluids’ (which include steam, gases at a pressure and liquids with vapour pressure greater than 0.5 barg and gases in porous material). This might well embrace pressure systems across an extremely wide range – from small air and other gas vessels and café machine boilers to various sized steam-generating plants, high pressure hot water boilers, process vessels, power plants, refrigerating/air conditioning units, large pipework, high-capacity gas storage tanks and to nuclear power stations.

Any significant failure of equipment could, of course, have serious consequences for employers, as well as employees, states Dr Roohul-Qadeer Hamid, technical manager (pressure) at Lloyds British, which offers inspection services on the full scope of equipment covered by the regulations and also provides independent testing of pressure equipment.

The regulations, he notes, are there “to prevent serious injury from the hazards of stored energy and the scalding effect of steam as a result of the failure of a pressure system consisting of pressure vessels and/or pipework, along with associated protective devices”.

What, though, are the main causes of pressure-related incidents occurring in the first place? He pinpoints several reasons:

    • Manufacturing defects
    • Poor installation
    • Poor maintenance of equipment
    • Inadequate repairs or modifications
    • Operator error, poor training/supervision
    • Unusual incidents – for example, damage through impact
    • In rare cases, bad design, particularly for imported non-notified equipment.

“Each of these issues can be avoided with an efficient inspection and testing process in place, which helps in identifying any defects, and ascertaining the need and type of repairs required,” Hamid adds. “Employers [or dutyholders] have a responsibility to ensure that these examinations are carried out, otherwise they risk being non-compliant -with PSSR, which, in turn, jeopardises health and safety in the workplace.”


Examinations are there to detect real and potential defects in the pressure system, and to judge the significance of the defects – that is, if the system is still fit for purpose. As a result, specific remedial action and/or recommendations for repair may be highlighted. “After examination, it is required to keep a record of the last examination relating to the system,” he points out, “as well as any previous reports that contain information that could be useful in the future, such as if the system was safe to operate or if any repairs have had to be made.”

This historic record will help in the diagnosis process of any future failure and in preparing an effective repair plan. Moreover, background knowledge is important for the safety of personnel carrying out the repairs. “The user/owner should make sure that pressure vessels under their control are properly maintained prior to, and after, examination and that any issues throughout a system’s lifecycle are recorded immediately and reported to the competent person or, if needed, to the relevant enforcing authorities,” he concludes.

BOX: HSE alert for modified road tanker pressure/vacuum relief valves

The Health and Safety Executive has warned that users of hazardous goods tanks should visually inspect the pressure/vacuum relief valves fitted to tank containers and road tankers (see also https://is.gd/ujelot).

In April 2020, the driver of an HGV hauling nitric acid that noticed vapour coming from the tanker barrel forced the closure of a road while a replacement valve was fitted. During what should have been a momentary venting operation, the vacuum relief element of the valve became stuck in an open position, allowing an uncontrolled escape of hazardous vapour.

Following an investigation by Cleveland Police and the HSE, it was determined that the relief valve fitted to the tanker barrel had been modified in a way that made it unsafe. The flanged bolt on the end of the valve stem had been removed, and a nut had been welded to the valve cap. The end of the valve stem caught on the thread inside the nut, preventing the vacuum relief element of the valve from closing.

It is likely that this modification was made when the valve was removed for routine servicing. Some valve designs require a special tool to dismantle. The addition of the nut allows the valve cap to be unscrewed without using a special tool.


Trade association EEMUA has published a revised version of EEMUA 177, Guide to the UK Pressure Systems Safety Regulations (2000). It describes the document as a practical guide to interpreting the Pressure Systems Safety Regulations (PSSR) that relate to periodic examination of pressure systems, in or out-of-service as appropriate, and certain associated aspects.

Edition 3, released in June 2020, priced at £79 for non-members, includes additional guidance on postponement of examinations within Regulation 9; a revision to the guidance on Regulation 10, ‘Action in case of imminent danger’; additional guidance on Regulation 13, ‘Modification and repair’; together with other points of interest based upon actual use of pressure systems covered by the PSSR.

The association adds that while the guide refers throughout to UK regulations and practice, much of the general advice is relevant to practice outside the UK.

Brian Wall

Related Companies
Lloyds British Testing plc

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