While ammonia systems are a common and safe option for industrial refrigeration, they are highly regulated to protect public safety and the environment from a potential chemical release. For years, these government regulations have only applied to systems in the U.S. with 10,000+ pounds of ammonia — until now.
As of January 1, 2023, all facilities with ammonia systems, regardless of size, must comply with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. That means your average mom-and-pop cold storage distributor must now play by the same rules as the world’s largest food companies.
The problem? Smaller facilities are often unaware they are subject to new rules, which could result in hefty fines and other penalties.
What you need to know about the latest EPA alert
Previously, the EPA only required facilities with 10,000 pounds or more of ammonia to comply with process safety management (PSM) regulations. Systems with less than 10,000 pounds of ammonia weren’t legally obligated to create a safety or hazard plan. There is now a need for all facilities, regardless of their size, to pay attention. The new standards are as follows:
- Refrigeration systems with 10,000 pounds or more of ammonia are required to complete a Process Hazard Analysis (PHA) every five years.
- Systems with less than 10,000 but more than 500 pounds require a hazard review at the minimum.
- Systems with 500 pounds or less require a safety review and/or an environmental safety evaluation, at minimum.
The EPA recommends all facilities double-check and ensure they have a hazard analysis in place. Contractors, consultants and equipment vendors are also encouraged to recommend end-user clients conduct a hazard analysis. At a minimum, a safety review should be done for any ammonia refrigeration system, whether the system uses 500 pounds of ammonia or 20,000 pounds.
The International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration (IIAR) establishes the minimum standards for inspection, testing and maintenance applicable to a safe closed-circuit ammonia refrigeration system. The EPA has contacted IIAR to determine whether facilities using hazardous chemicals have conducted a hazard analysis and recommends facility owners contact a qualified contractor accordingly. In the absence of a PSM program, the owner of the facility should bring in an expert contractor (like Stellar) to develop one.
The United States EPA National Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Program implemented several national compliance initiatives (NCIs), effective for FY 2020-2023. Compliance initiatives ensure that every facility has a safety and hazard plan, regardless of its size.
Why should a facility conduct a hazard analysis?
First and foremost, PHAs ensure the safety of your workers, facility and surrounding community. For example, in the event of an ammonia leak, the facility should have a plan for how to address the leak, who to alert, where workers should go to avoid breathing in chemicals, and the necessary steps to prevent the leak from spreading. About 150 catastrophic accidents happen at industrial and chemical facilities each year, according to the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), which often result in fatalities and serious incidents, evacuation and other harm to human health and the environment.
Compared to rural facilities, those located near malls, airports, cities, and waterways pose a greater risk. Any leak should, however, be taken seriously and treated immediately to avoid catastrophic damage.
It’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s essential to plan and address all “what if?” scenarios. A PSM manager will ask questions that an owner might not have considered, such as:
- What if there is a major power outage or natural disaster?
- Are you prepared for another pandemic?
- Do your eye wash stations function properly?
- What are some previous near-misses or incidents?
- What are the potential hazards in your facility?
Another reason for conducting a PHA? Decreases the potential for fines to be accessed to the facility. An out-of-compliance facility may end up costing the owner hundreds of thousands of dollars, whether it is discovered by an audit, a violation or a serious incident.
Under the Clean Air Act Section 112(r)(1), the General Duty Clause (GDC) states that “owners and operators of stationary sources producing, processing, handling or storing such substances have a general duty to identify hazards which may result from releases using appropriate hazard assessment techniques, to design and maintain a safe facility taking such steps as are necessary to prevent releases, and to minimize the consequences of accidental release which do occur.”
An owner can be cited for violating the GDC if a recognized serious hazard exists in their workplace, such as a catastrophic ammonia release, minor ammonia release, or injury to an employee working on or around the covered process. in a line or outdated equipment, and the employer does not take reasonable steps to prevent or abate the hazard. Fines can range from $50,000 to $700,000 per incident, and are subject to OSHA and the authority holding jurisdiction (AHJ) fines and fees schedules. It is important to recognize that facilities can also be dinged for not complying with Recognized and Generally Accepted Good Engineering Practices (RAGAGEP), the minimum standards for facilities. The EPA has committed to increasing its enforcement efforts due to the recent changes to requirements.
Facilities with a documented PSM program will be prepared for an audit. If the EPA were to show up at a facility, an owner would have the report in hand and the peace of mind of knowing they have followed the necessary steps. Depending on the state a plant is in, the number of audits will vary, but all facilities will likely be audited at some point. There’s no “getting around” an audit by the federal government.
Preparing for a hazard analysis
The first step when creating a PSM program, process hazard analysis, or safety plan is to partner with a compliance team to create the plan. The team can conduct an on-site visit (or a teleconference visit, if necessary) to identify potential hazards and solutions to mitigate them. At Stellar, we also provide a report card to help track this progress.
It’s also crucial to make key team members, such as the plant engineer, refrigeration technician, and maintenance or safety manager, available to answer any questions a PSM manager may have. Your PSM partner is there to help in the event something goes wrong, and it’s vital to remember to address all concerns with them.
It’s also critical to have all incident investigation forms, accident report forms and PSM documentation ready and up-to-date. A PSM manager will want to review these documents, and it will make the process easier and faster. They will also want to check any facility and equipment drawings to inspect the facility’s layout and plan for the next steps in the event of a hazard.
Plan ahead for a smooth process
Stellar’s Aftermarket Services can assist with any situation your facility may face.
Some systems fall out of compliance when there is a change in recognized and generally accepted good engineering practices or if building codes are updated. Some smaller or newer facilities may not have a plan yet at all.
Our Compliance team can develop a PSM program, provide planned maintenance alerts, and help prepare for regulatory agency audits in as little as a two-day turnaround. The bottom line is that safety is non-negotiable. In today’s market, you must be proactive and prepared to minimize downtime and keep your ammonia system compliant, running smoothly, and, most of all, safe.
Have questions about ammonia compliance or conducting a hazard analysis? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call at 800.488.2900.