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3 Ways to Improve Ammonia Handling

By Christine Torres

Danger sign warns of anhydrous ammonia

For manufacturers, suppliers, and end users in refrigeration and HVAC, low-charge anhydrous ammonia is all the rage. Using the tiniest quantities of this economical gas, newer compact systems improve efficiency and provide cost savings. Another benefit of using low-charge ammonia refrigeration systems is that it is much safer for workers. However, continuous risk assessments, emergency plans, and communication are still key to compliant, efficient, and safe ammonia management.

Understanding Ammonia

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, anhydrous ammonia is among the top five chemicals causing injuries in acute incidents. The top two causes of the ammonia release accidents were equipment failure and human error. Before any work, employees should understand basic ammonia fundamentals. Recently, a worker was severely burned in an anhydrous ammonia incident at a beef processing plant in Nebraska. The company incurred 16 OSHA violations, including failure to comply with lockout/tagout rules and not following process safety management.

“When employers fail to properly document procedures and control highly hazardous chemicals, there is the potential for unintentional releases that can result in serious and fatal injuries," said Omaha Area Director Jeff Funke. "By implementing and sustaining workplace safety and health programs, employers can monitor their processes to ensure safeguards are in place to protect workers."

While newer, compact systems are easier to maintain, ammonia handling still causes a huge problem for workers when there is a lack of organization and communication. Here are three points to consider to help improve ammonia safety in the workplace:

1. Communicate Clearly

Increasing safety awareness is all about influencing behavior. Safety managers can reinforce conversations on work on or around low-charge ammonia stations by using reminders that catch the eye of an employee or even a visiting contractor. For example:

  • Identify ammonia stations and their hazards using chemical notification signs.
  • List the contents, hazards, and other instructions on ammonia containers through HazCom labels.
  • Workers will know where ammonia pipes are, content pressure, and the direction of its flow through pipe labels.
  • Create boundaries to guide workers and traffic around ammonia systems using floor marking. 

2. Follow Through on Risk Management

Safety risk management starts with a job hazard analysis. This step is necessary when anhydrous ammonia is in use, according to OSHA. A hazard analysis not only identifies potential danger, it also helps assess compliance. For example:

  • As part of preemptive maintenance, routinely schedule and inspect low-charge ammonia stations for safety and efficiency.
  • Place hazard warnings, operating information, and safety reminders directly where a worker will need them when working in or around low-charge ammonia systems.
  • Compile a written checklist of safety issues, identify hazards, and evaluate the risk. Include details about chemicals that are part of various tasks.
  • Monitor and test ammonia release and pressure relief alarm systems periodically.

3. Continuous Training

When companies don’t keep up on their ammonia equipment and training, they learn the hard way. Breaking down the CDC’s most recent ammonia exposure information, there were an average of 46 ammonia release incidents and 115 people injured per year over a 10-year period. While newer anhydrous ammonia systems improve safety, employers should still:

  • Train and retrain workers for new or changing processes as the system or facilities change.
  • Have an ammonia exposure control plan in place as well as emergency response and evacuation plans.
  • Clean and organize PPE stations. Use labels to identify gloves, eye wear, and more for ammonia protection.
  • Review lockout/tagout procedures for maintenance.

Pipe with ammonia information labelSafety Boosts Efficiency

Having lax procedures when working with ammonia can injure workers and put surrounding communities in danger. Using communication, a solid risk management plan and continuous training, facility safety managers will enhance productivity and reduce operational costs. When planning risk assessment inspections in 2019, focus on contractors conducting installations, maintenance, and other activities on ammonia systems. By posting instructions and other messages, refrigeration maintenance workers are more likely to pay attention.

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