Companies that manufacture products requiring refrigeration commonly use ammonia. Ammonia is a generally safe and cost-effective way to regulate temperatures and prevent spoilage. However ammonia is a hazardous chemical, and, without proper safety procedures, ammonia leaks in the workplace can endanger workers and even the public. Development and compliance with Process Safety Management (PSM) standards, combined with adequate OSHA HAZWOPER training, can help companies protect employees from injuries caused by ammonia accidents and avoid severe fines and penalties for safety violations.
The Dangers of Ammonia
The ammonia refrigeration process has seen little change since the early 20th century. It is used to create a cool environment that helps keep products fresh and prevent bacterial growth. Refrigerant grade anhydrous ammonia is a clear colorless gas or liquid and is considered an irritant. At high levels, its corrosive properties can severely damage lungs, eyes and other human tissue. Ammonia is not flammable, but canisters exposed to high heat may explode.
Anhydrous ammonia leakages can threaten the safety of workers and others inside and outside of the operating plant. These risks include:
- • A risk of fire and combustion when concentrations exceed 16 to 25 percent
- • Severe corrosion and displacement of oxygen in poorly ventilated areas
- • Extreme leakages that flow outside and endanger the public
- • Contamination of food and beverages in process and storage units
The Atlantic Glacier case
In September 2014, ice manufacturer and distributor Atlantic Glacier USA incurred 19 OSHA safety citations and paid over a quarter million dollars in fines related to ammonia usage after failing a comprehensive inspection of its ice manufacturing plant where it had nearly 15,000 pounds of ammonia in use. The company had extremely poor PSM in place, which resulted in the identification of numerous safety hazards that could have had catastrophic and potentially lethal results in the case of an accident and anhydrous ammonia release.
OSHA maintains strict guidelines for the safe use and maintenance of large amounts of hazardous chemicals like ammonia. The company failed to establish adequate precautions, thereby placing its workers in danger. Its violations included:
- • Incomplete and inadequate operating procedures
- • Lack of testing and inspections documentation
- • Failure to prove that equipment met safety and engineering standards
- • Failure to train and educate employees on process safety and emergency response procedures
- • Inadequate work space around process equipment
- • Lack of accessible exit routes
- • Using improperly rated electrical switches in a wet setting
The Importance of Process Safety Management (PSM)
Companies having over 10,000 lbs of ammonia must have a comprehensive and fully documented PSM program. All workers must be trained and fully aware of the PSM standards and procedures and be able to carry out proper implementation of the safety protocols. Due to the size and complexity of many ammonia refrigeration systems, regular maintenance and equipment upgrades are a must. Most companies have a team of maintenance professionals well-versed in engineering design and handling of ammonia refrigeration systems. They also partner with contractors who aid in system repair and upgrades. A team of workers should be on site at all times to regularly inspect systems for deficiencies and resolve issues as necessary. Many companies using hazardous materials like ammonia also employ workers certified in various first-aid and emergency procedures.
OSHA HAZWOPER training and PSM
Companies can find extensive information about recommended safety standards and PSM procedures on OSHA’s website. By consolidating these guidelines with their own safety practices, companies can create a workplace environment that maximizes worker safety and minimizes the risk of dangerous ammonia leaks and worker exposure.
Proper implementation of PSM also means adequate safety training for employees who work with and around hazardous materials. Workers should be familiar with OSHA HAZWOPER safety standards. OSHA HAZWOPER training provides comprehensive training to help workers learn to safely handle equipment and hazardous materials in the workplace, as well as learn the correct use of personal protective equipment. A comprehensive safety program that includes PSM and HAZWOPER training of employees will help employers prevent accidents, injuries and fines.