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Ammonia Safety


Technical Safety BC has been working closely with industry to improve refrigeration systems safety, raising awareness around the risks presented by ammonia equipment. Here we will cover off what is ammonia, the dangers and effects of ammonia exposure, and who is responsible for keeping the public safe from ammonia exposure.


What is ammonia?

Ammonia is a toxic chemical. It is one of the key components in the manufacturing of many household and industrial products; most commonly found in refrigerants, cleaning products, and fertilizers. It can be a liquid or a gas, and it's often identified by its pungent smell. Exposure to a high concentration of ammonia can be fatal.


The dangers of ammonia exposure

  • Exposure to this toxic gas may result in chemical burns to skin, eyes, and lungs. The level of danger depends on the concentration of ammonia and how long you've been exposed to it.
  • Low concentrations of ammonia can cause headaches, loss of smell, nausea and vomiting. Stronger concentrations result in irritation to the nose, mouth, throat and damage to the lungs.
  • High concentrations of ammonia can be immediately fatal.
  • If there's an ammonia release, notify a supervisor immediately. Clear the area, and begin emergency procedures.


Reducing the risk of an ammonia leak

Facility owners and managers are responsible for the safe operation of their technical systems. It is their job to ensure that any ammonia refrigeration plants exceeding 50 kW are monitored and continuously controlled by a qualified and certified individual.

Anyone in charge of a refrigeration plant is required to complete specific safety training, and know what to do in case of an emergency, such as an ammonia leak. All facility safety systems and devices – such as alarms – must be installed, tested, and maintained on a continuous basis.

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

Furthermore, owners and operators of refrigeration systems must report all ammonia releases to Technical Safety BC within 24 hours of the incident or release, as stated in the Safety Standards Act.


What is Technical Safety BC's role around ammonia?

Technical Safety BC is responsible for overseeing the design, construction, installation and operation of equipment that involves boilers, pressure vessels and refrigeration units across British Columbia.

In addition to issuing permits, licences and certificates, we work with industry to reduce safety risks through assessment, education and outreach, enforcement, and research. 

Technical Safety BC periodically inspects ice rinks, and other locations with ammonia facilities, to confirm regulatory obligations are being met. However, it is the legal responsibility of the facility owner to meet those legislative requirements.


Fernie Memorial Arena incident investigation

Ammonia refrigeration piping and tanks

On October 17, 2017, there was an ammonia release at the Fernie Memorial Arena which tragically resulted in three fatalities, as well as the evacuation of 95 residents from 55 nearby homes. Our incident investigation report provides an overview and scope of the incident, and key findings regarding contributing factors. Technical Safety BC also made 18 recommendations to further improve safety in ice rink refrigeration systems, and discussed a number of regulatory actions taken in recent months to prevent similar incidents.


Ammonia incident summary reports

As part of Technical Safety BC's commitment to share safety information with clients and the public, we share our incident investigation summaries. Several recent incident investigations involving ammonia are provided below.

July 23, 2019
Ammonia release in food processing facility results in evacuation
 | Richmond 
An ammonia release at an industrial food processing facility in Richmond resulted in the evacuation of the facility and temporary shutdown of the ammonia plant.

December 15, 2018
Cracked bellows on ammonia thermal expansion valve | Delta

An ammonia leak at an industrial food processing facility was caused by cracked bellows on an ammonia thermal expansion valve.

October 24, 2017
O-ring failure causes ammonia leak at poultry processing plant  | Port Coquitlam

A suction regulator O-ring was blown out resulting in an ammonia gas leak in a poultry processing plant. 

2007 - 2014 
Case Study: Ammonia release incidents (2007 - 2014)  | Province wide
Of the 57 incidents reported to Technical Safety BC between 2007 and 2017, 59 resulted in the release of ammonia from the refrigeration system.