By Andrew Perks
We take a look at why ammonia awareness training should be a regular training requirement.

The year really is flying away at a pace. Since we last chatted, I have been involved in organising a presentation for the ammonia cold storage industry at the Italian Club in Cape Town. Considering all the planning and time that goes into an event like this for one day, it was really worth it.

What lead me to set this up was that I was informed by James Cunningham of Barpro that Padraic Durham of Gauge Refrigeration Management New Zealand was visiting our fair Cape Town. It really is not often that we get the opportunity to hear what is happening from other safety leaders on the other side of the world. What was reassuring, in listening to his presentation, is that we are really on the right path here in South Africa, especially when it comes to safe procedures and safety equipment.

Paddy started life, like most of we refrigeration technicians, on the tools, and due to the lack of formal training availability, learned the vast majority of his skills the hard way. We had a look at the Jose Mata incident (look it up on the internet) where a plant operator got seriously burned, whereafter Padraic (I always thought that “Paddy” was the right name but apparently the Irish are more devious than I thought) recounted his experience, where he sustained similar injuries.

It was an interesting story of a lack of knowledge of system operations, and what to do when everything goes pear shaped. You may recall that I have told you that more refrigeration technicians are injured and die whilst draining oil. Well that was Padraic Durham’s story. Jose Mata’s story was something else – he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. That said, it all comes down to knowing what to do when a problem develops. For that you need training – regular training.

To get back to Paddy – he was draining oil from an oil drain valve at an oil pot after he had shut down the valve between the suction accumulator and the oil pot. He reached the point where all the oil had drained and he tried to shut the drain valve (there was no spring-loaded drain valve as required by SANS 10147). The next problem was that he was engulfed in a cloud of ammonia and as he had not donned his gas mask, he could not see. Compounding this was the fact that his artisan and assistant had miraculously disappeared.

The first reaction is to get out of there, but of course, as he could not see, the first thing he did was fall over stuff that was lying around the plant room. Now, the problems are just starting to increase, so he has to get back in there and close off the vent valve to fully isolate the oil drain pot.

Sure, you are all saying – why did he not do that before he started to drain the oil, and in retrospect that is also a question he asked himself.

Remember that an ammonia burn is not a normal burn and needs special treatment.

So, now it starts to get interesting. There is Paddy outside of the plant room, spraying himself down with water and removing all of his clothes, though I believe for a bit of decency he did keep on his underwear (the area where it burns really badly!). At this point you would expect that there would have been people rushing to his assistance, but they probably thought it was a new version of the ‘Haka’ and kept away. It sounds funny, but it’s not – there was no one trained on what to do in this situation.

Paddy knew he had to get to a hospital, but then the next problem arose as no one knew how to deal with an ammonia injury. He recounted how he rode around scantily dressed, soaking wet in his bakkie, looking for someone to assist him.

The way he told the story it sounded really amusing, but in reality it was not. This was the incident that swung his career towards bringing safety knowledge and training to the refrigeration industry.

For me it brought home the problems that we have with safety training. With ammonia releases, it is all about water – lots and lots of water to fully flush any ammonia sprayed onto the body. But primarily it is about not getting into a situation where an incident can occur. As Paddy so rightly said, his incident could have easily been avoided, the Jose Mata story not so, but the injuries could have been mitigated if the people involved were properly trained and had the correct protection equipment to hand.

So, the question we need to ask ourselves:
Are we prepared for an ammonia release?

Do we have a practical site emergency plan that will kick in should an incident take place? This plan should include material safety data sheets of all the hazards on site

.Remember that an ammonia burn is not a normal burn and needs special treatment. If you don’t let the emergency services know about this, you may not get the correct treatment.

Make a decision today – don’t let this happen to you.