15 Common Ammonia Safety Issues Your Refrigeration Personnel Can Control (And Correct)

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15 Common Ammonia Safety Issues Your Refrigeration Personnel Can Control (And Correct)

More changes are coming to the food and beverage industry as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to crack down on ammonia safety.

The EPA has launched a three-year, nationwide enforcement and compliance initiative focused on reducing the risks of chemical releases from facilities that use extremely hazardous chemicals, including those that use ammonia as a refrigerant.

Plus, the EPA’s final rule amending its Risk Management Program (RMP) is scheduled to go into effect on March 14, assuming the Trump administration and Congress don’t vacate the new rule. The rule aims to improve safety by imposing new regulations on cold storage and food processing facilities that use at least 10,000 pounds of ammonia in their refrigeration processes. (Increased enforcement and the expansion of the RMP has motivated many processors to implement low-charge ammonia systems that use much less than 10,000 pounds of ammonia.)

We all know proper engineering practices and maintenance to prevent ammonia hazards are always critical, but it’s especially important now that our industries and ammonia safety are under such a national spotlight.

For years, Stellar’s refrigeration teams have focused on mitigating ammonia safety risks, visiting food facilities worldwide. Many of the safety issues we see stem from elements plant personnel have direct control over — and can correct.

Here are the 15 most common issues Stellar has seen when it comes to ammonia safety hazards in food plants (and how to correct them):

1. Poor housekeeping practices (oily or wet floors, storing items in the machine room)

Correct it: A clean area is a safe area. Ensure your floors are clean, free of oil and water and do not use your ammonia machine room as a storage room.

2. Poor pipe quality beneath insulation

Correct it: Check for corrosion under insulation (CUI) by conducting spot checks, often performed during your mechanical integrity audit. Prevent pipe corrosion by using a corrosion inhibitor or stainless steel pipe.

3. Absence of adequate pipe labels or no maintenance program of labeling

Correct it: Follow International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration (IIAR) Bulletin No. 114.

4. Equipment is operated outside design parameters

Materials are generally only rated for a specific temperature range. In the refrigeration industry, users may change a setpoint from -20℉ to -25℉ to try and improve production or make up for lack of capacity; however, the pipe may only be rated for -20℉. Running pumps or compressors at different design conditions than intended can overload the motors.

Correct it: Operate your pumps and compressors within the designated design parameters and temperature range.

5. Failure to implement maintenance cycling program on valves

If your valves sit in one position for too long, they won’t work when you go to use them.

Correct it: “Exercise” (open and close) your valves regularly.  

6. Blocked escape routes from areas with ammonia present

It may seem obvious, but don’t store a big box in front of an exit. We see this mistake often.

Correct it: Ensure escape routes are clear.

7. Operators with insufficient training of ammonia refrigeration operations and safety awareness

Correct it: Per process safety management (PSM), ensure personnel involved with the operation and maintenance of the ammonia system receive initial training and refresher training every three years.

8. Unsafe access to frequently used valves, equipment, etc. for maintenance

Correct it: Items that require maintenance should ideally be accessible from the ground (use a chain wheel). Items up high should have a catwalk or a clear path accessible via a scissor lift or ladder.

9. Leak detection systems that are either nonexistent, inoperable, not calibrated or not tied to ventilation systems

Correct it: Perform annual testing on your leak detection systems to ensure alarms work properly.

10. Uncapped open valves

Correct it: Ensure all valves open to the atmosphere have a pipe plug or cap.

11. Open oil draining valves

Because oil draining valves have a spring return, you personnel must stand in front of them and hold them open. Some personnel might take them off and just leave them open.  

Correct it: Avoid this issue by utilizing self-closing, spring-loaded valves.

12. Gas mask systems are not readily accessible

Correct it: Keep your gas mask systems close to your ammonia source.

13. Heavy ice buildup on piping and components; not taking weight into consideration

Some pipes (those below 32°F) will build frost either because they are not insulated, or are not insulated properly. The ice will get thicker and thicker, creating considerable added weight. Pipe supports and the building are not designed to hold this extra weight.

Correct it: Insulate your piping and components properly.

14. Not executing safety switch testing on a consistent schedule

Correct it: Conduct annual safety switch testing.

15. Open electrical cabinets

Correct it: Close your electrical cabinets to prevent risk of shock or fire.

Do any of these issues sound familiar? Be sure to download our ammonia safety checklist below and keep it handy around your facility to ensure your plant and personnel are as safe as possible.

Download Ammonia Safety Checklist


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