Do you want to put on your parachute before or after you jump out of the airplane?

That is the rhetorical question Scott Melton, training coordinator of the Ammonia Safety & Training Institute (ASTI), asks to illustrate the importance of proper safety planning when working with ammonia as a refrigerant.

“Too many times in our industry, the people working with ammonia don’t even know where the parachute is,” said Melton, who is also the compliance, training, and special projects manager at Central Washington Refrigeration in Yakima, Washington. “The truth is, all of us in the HVACR industry are working with hazardous chemicals, whether it’s ammonia or another refrigerant, and we have to respect those chemicals.”

When it comes to safety planning for ammonia, there’s no time to start like the present, said Gary Smith, president and cofounder, ASTI.

“It’s like a messy garage or house,” Smith said. “If you let it go, it takes some real effort to get it cleaned up and livable again. But, once you get it right, it’s very easy to maintain. A clean and safe work environment is enjoyable and much more productive, especially when you insist on making safety and readiness a cultural/organizational ‘must do.’ Safety happens as an organizational culture that guides work habits.”

That means operators of facilities that use ammonia refrigeration equipment must write and enforce standard operating procedures, buy the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), and practice what they preach with regard to safety — not only from top to bottom in their own organizations, but also with visitors, contractors, and other industry stakeholders.

Smith offered these six essential steps to a good ammonia safety program:

• Wear appropriate PPE (emphasis on eye, respiratory, and skin protection) whenever performing high-risk maintenance or system investigation/troubleshooting;

• Use a buddy system during high-risk operations;

• Remember PMP: Prevention (use good housekeeping and operational habits), mitigation (engage well-engineered solutions to high-risk challenges), and preparation (ensure your people are trained and prepared to act when dealing with hazards, risks, and threats);

• Constantly ascertain systems’ mechanical integrity, and always use hot works permits, lock-out/tag-out, pipeline, and valve identification;

• Invest in operator training and ensure operators’ readiness to troubleshoot potential problems; and

• Make the executive-level commitment to safety apparent to all. Walk your plant, talk to the operators, ask about seemingly dangerous conditions, and empower safety management action.

“Process safety management works if you engage the principals with a hands-on, real-time approach,” Smith said. “Engage and empower operators and field supervisors in the safety protocols and hold them accountable for safety. Everyone lives and plays by the safety culture.”

Melton pointed out that when it comes to safety when working around ammonia, it’s important to understand there is an entire community can be affected by the release of ammonia at a facility.

“We need to understand ammonia’s characteristics to be able to keep ourselves safe first, then our fellow workers, the community, and the environment,” Melton said. “The best safety characteristic of ammonia is the fact that we can smell it at very low levels; therefore, if we are well-prepared and react correctly and quickly, none of the stakeholders will be hurt. And the only way to be prepared is to learn, train, and plan, and then continue learning, training, and planning.”

Melton said that, to those knowledgeable about the characteristics of ammonia (see sidebar), it should become very apparent that knowing how to move away from the ammonia is paramount (laterally and up wind and/or shelter in place). However, the people who are injured most frequently and most seriously are those who work directly with the systems.

“You should always know the exit routes so well that you could follow them blindfolded while holding your breath — which are likely the conditions you will experience if you are caught around a release,” Melton said. “You must know how to get to fresh air.”

Melton added that PPE is the best defense from ammonia. “Full skin coverage along with a respirator will get you out of most releases,” he said. “In fact, statistics show that nearly all injuries and death from ammonia have one thing in common: lack of PPE.”

Ultimately, Melton concluded, no one who works with an ammonia refrigeration system should ever reach a point where he or she believes there is no longer any need to train and plan for ammonia releases.

“We can always learn more, be better trained, and make better plans,” he said. “No safety program or safety regulation is ever going to make us safe; we have to make ourselves safe. Buy-in from each individual is what makes a safety program work.”


In 2016, the Ammonia Safety & Training Institute (ASTI) will be celebrating its 25th anniversary. Gary Smith, president and cofounder, estimates that, since ASTI’s inception, the organization has trained more than 100,000 ammonia emergency responders, including end users, fire service professionals, and regulators.

“We shouldn’t fear ammonia. When it’s handled properly, it really isn’t any more dangerous than any other refrigerant or chemical,” said Scott Melton, lead instructor, ASTI. “But, we should learn all we can and prepare for emergencies. So, sign up for a class, work on your emergency plan, and drill your team, and you will learn to love ammonia as we do. Our goal at ASTI is to make ammonia the safest chemical used in refrigeration.”

SIDEBAR: 10 Things You Should Know About Ammonia

1. Free-flowing ammonia vapor tends to stay together in a shape of its own, because in dense amounts it creates a cooler-than-ambient environment. Ammonia travels downwind in a V-pattern and eventually dissipates upward into the atmosphere.

2. Water absorbs ammonia to form ammonium hydroxide and has a high pH (alkaline). Contain pooled amounts in a safe location so the ammonia solution can evaporate or otherwise be mitigated.

3. Stay out of a cloud of ammonia contained inside a room, as it may be flammable and will be very cold.

4. Ammonia reacts violently with chlorine, acids, brass, copper, silver, and zinc. These elements corrode rapidly when mixed with ammonia in the presence of moisture.

5. Allow ammonia vapors to escape to the atmosphere unless the release is causing a serious threat to life safety. Dry, windy weather dissipates ammonia the fastest. Humid and foggy weather results in poor dissipation. Inversion pressures (smoggy day) slow dissipation. Rain dissipates ammonia releases (contain the runoff until the pH is in the 7-9 range). Ammonia will follow the wind direction and track along low valleys until it dissipates.

6. Large volumes of water dilute ammonia but form a highly corrosive ammonia hydroxide solution. Avoid using water unless it’s absolutely necessary to protect life (evacuation or rescue). Never put water on ammonia liquid, an aerosol stream, or an aerosol-dense gas cloud.

7. The best overall method of handling a release is to control ventilation and reduce pressure by releasing it to the atmosphere (from containment within a building or under a containment tarp). Allow ammonia to dissipate to the atmosphere if people downwind are adequately protected or evacuated.

8. Ammonia is easy to contain by tarping the component that is releasing it, especially for outside releases. For inside releases, close doors and block openings to the building with a tarp.

9. If caught in an ammonia release, escape laterally and move upwind. When the release direction is difficult to assess, move inside to shelter in place or move toward someone who has proper personal protective equipment.

10. If an ammonia cloud is spreading toward your home or business and you cannot immediately escape upwind safely, stay indoors (shelter in place), seal the doorways and windows, shut off heating and ventilation systems, and wait until the cloud passes. If ammonia vapor enters the structure where people are sheltered, consider using a wet washcloth over the nose and mouth to catch the ammonia vapors (rinse or replace the cloth if it becomes saturated with ammonia vapor), take shallow breaths through the nose, and/or move to a bathroom and turn on a shower.

Source: Ammonia Safety & Training Institute;

Publication date: 11/2/2015

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