Understanding and preventing the dangers of ammonia exposure

Technical Safety BC safety officers continue to work with other agencies, including: the fire department, RCMP, the Coroner's office, and WorkSafe BC in response to the tragic incident in Fernie, BC on October 17, 2017.

Technical Safety BC safety officers are conducting an independent investigation to help determine the extent to which regulated technical systems, equipment and work may have been involved. At this point, we do not want to speculate on the possible cause of the incident but we will post updates here as soon as more is known. Once we have our investigation findings, we will be able to assess the steps needed to prevent incidents of this nature in the future and we will make our report public.

Below is some information regarding the dangers of ammonia exposure and how Technical Safety BC works to provide knowledge, education, oversight and regulatory support to industry to help prevent ammonia related incidents.

 

More Information about Safety Order SO-BP 2017-02 (Operation of Ammonia Refrigeration Plants in Public Occupancies)

Technical Safety BC has been working with owners of ammonia facilities to promote awareness around ammonia leak detection, and to raise awareness about the dangers and prevention of accidental ammonia release incidents. In order to address any potential public safety concern, Technical Safety BC issued a Safety Order on December 22 to remind the owners and operators of ammonia facilities about their responsibilities.

This safety order serves as a reminder of existing regulations. No new regulatory requirements have been imposed, nor have any existing provisions of the regulations been changed.

Safety is a shared responsibility and under the Safety Standards Act, owners and operators of ammonia refrigeration systems have specific requirements, including hiring qualified individuals to maintain and monitor equipment.

The Dangers of Ammonia Exposure

Ammonia releases from refrigeration systems can cause injuries to employees, emergency response personnel, any public using the facilities and those living in communities surrounding the facilities.  When released from a refrigeration system, ammonia vaporizes into a toxic gas. It is very corrosive, and exposure to it may result in chemical-type burns to skin, eyes, and lungs. It may also result in frostbite, since liquid ammonia’s boiling point at atmospheric pressure is -28°F. Ammonia has a high affinity for water and migrates to moist areas like the eyes, nose, mouth, throat, and moist skin.  Exposure to low concentrations can cause headaches, loss of the sense of smell, nausea, and vomiting. Higher concentrations result in irritation to the nose, mouth, and throat causing coughing, wheezing and damage to the lungs.  Very high concentrations of ammonia can be immediately fatal.

Ammonia is flammable and extremely reactive as it readily combines with other chemicals to form other potentially harmful substances or explosive mixtures.  Material commonly found in refrigeration machinery rooms such as oils can react with ammonia increasing the fire hazard. In addition, strong oxidizers, such as chlorine or bleaches, can form explosive mixtures when they come into contact with ammonia.

Incident Prevention for Industry Professionals

To prevent releases and mitigate the risk of injury from ammonia exposure, owners and operators of ammonia refrigeration systems must ensure operation and maintenance safety programs are implemented at their facilities. 

Operation and maintenance safety programs for ammonia refrigeration systems should include:

Written safe work procedures

  • Policies and procedures detailing how to safely operate and maintain the refrigeration system including the safe use, handling and disposal of ammonia.
  • Plans for testing and replacing safety equipment, such as monitors and alarm systems, detection equipment, radios, eye washes, respiratory and skin protection equipment, and first aid kits.
  • Procedures for preventative maintenance and repairs to the refrigeration equipment.

Written emergency response plans and procedures

  • Detailed directions in case of an emergency including escape and evacuation, equipment isolation/shut down and notification of emergency services.
  • Operation and testing of alarm systems.
  • Location and use of safety equipment such as detection equipment, radios, eye washes and showers, respirators skin protection equipment and first aid kits.

Training for supervisors and workers

  • All operators must hold a Technical Safety BC certificate of qualification.
  • Provide site specific training on operational and maintenance procedures.
  • Conducting emergency drills.
  • Fit testing/proper use and care of respirators and emergency equipment.
  • Up to date first aid training.

Regular worksite inspections

  • Regularly inspect facility to ensure proper storage of hazardous materials, emergency equipment is accessible and in satisfactory condition, emergency exists are clear,  doors open easily  and seal the machinery room from the building, ventilation and alarms are operating.
  • Refrigeration machinery room not to be used for storage.

Records

  • Maintain records of training, maintenance, inspections and emergency drills including staff participating, dates and findings or deficiencies.
  • Record actions taken to correct deficiencies.
  • Conduct a periodic review of records to verify that the records are complete, accurate and up to date.

Keeping both employees and the community surrounding a facility with an ammonia refrigeration system safe is of utmost importance.  An effective operation and maintenance safety program can help prevent accidents and injuries.

The Safety Standards Act and referenced regulations require that owners or operators of refrigeration systems must report all ammonia releases or any other incident to Technical Safety BC within 24 hours of the incident or release. 

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