By Grant Laidlaw

This is one of the skills everyone working in the refrigeration and air conditioning industry must have.

Elias asks: Mr Grant, we are doing an audit for health and safety. Also for safety files. Can you please let us know about the procedures for handling refrigerant cylinders?

Hi Elias, yes, so because this is a critical skill for those working with refrigerants, we are going back to basics.

What we need to know is how to handle containers with refrigerant in such a way that there is no injury to persons, the plant or the environment – and the safety procedures needed when handling, transporting and storing refrigerant containers.

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Elias, the following is a list of basic procedures when handling gas cylinders:

  • Always have personal protection equipment available when charging or discharging refrigerant.
  • Don’t slide, roll or skid cylinders
  • Don’t subject cylinders to shock.
  • Don’t lift by the valve or with magnets.
  • Don’t use leaking or damaged cylinders.
  • Always seal cylinders after use.
  • Store cylinders upright and chain them.
  • Store full and empty cylinders separately.
  • Always secure cylinders when transporting.
  • Don’t stack cylinders on top of each other.
  • Store cylinders in shadow and away from any heat source.
  • Only use correct cylinders.
  • Do not charge refrigerant into cylinders that are damaged, and do not over-fill them.

With regards to work site procedures and safety precautions when dealing with refrigerants

Fresh refrigerant vapours and many other gases are heavier than air and can displace the oxygen in a closed space. Because of this, low-level ventilation should be used. Proper ventilation must be used at all times to prevent the technician from being overcome by lack of oxygen.

Should you be in a closed space and the concentration of refrigerant becomes too great, you may not notice it until it is too late. Your symptoms would be a dizzy or light headed feeling, and your lips may become numb. If you should feel his way, move quickly to a place with fresh air.

Because there are risks involved with working with refrigerant cylinders it is important that certain safety precautions be established before starting work on a refrigeration plant. If no work site procedures are in place, the following general precautions must be observed.

  1. Locate other personnel working in the vicinity and inform them that you are going to work on the plant so that if there is any emergency, they know that you are working in the plant room.
  2. Adhere to the safety policy of the plant owner.
  3. Adhere to the safety requirements of the particular site.
  4. Obtain a permit to work, if necessary.
  5. Assess any risks involved in working in the area, for example if a major refrigerant leak occurred, could it harm others?
  6. Check the level of ventilation in the plant room in order to prevent the build-up of refrigerant vapour that can cause asphyxiation.
  7. In the case of flammable refrigerants ensure that there are no ignition sources in the vicinity.
  8. Check the location of the following:
    1. The electrical isolator for the plant so that the plant can be switched off in case of an emergency, or for normal maintenance work.
    2. The emergency exits for quick exit if required.
    3. The positions of the fire extinguishers in case of fires.
    4. The nearest first aid equipment for emergency use.
    5. The nearest telephone to phone rescue services if required.
    6. The telephone numbers of the rescue services.

The above constitutes the minimum good practice as the information above will be needed should an emergency arise.

Elias, it is also important to understand that there are situations that require two competent persons to be present. As explained earlier, refrigerant gases do not contain any oxygen and if refrigerant is leaking from a plant there is a danger of an excessive build-up of refrigerant vapour. This can cause asphyxiation.

For this reason there are work situations in which it is essential that two competent persons are required to be present. These are the following:

  • When working in an enclosed area.
  • When working in a basement.
  • When working in a badly ventilated area.

In all the above situations there can be a build-up of refrigerant when there is a leak. The second person must stay outside the working area and observe the person inside all the time; if he/she sees the person is in distress he/she must remove the person from the area immediately, apply the appropriate safety procedures and obtain medical assistance – if necessary.

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The use of a life line could be useful when helping a person in an emergency.

Elias, with regards to storing refrigerant containers the following guideline apply:

  1. Always use approved cylinders for storing refrigerants.
  2. Always store cylinders upright.
  3. Always secure cylinders properly.
  4. Do not stack cylinders on top of each other.
  5. Full and empty cylinders must be stored separately.
  6. Valves on empty cylinders must be kept closed.
  7. Cylinders must be stored in a dry, well ventilated space, away from any heat source; storage temperature must not exceed 45°C.
  8. Refrigerant containers must not be indiscriminately mixed in storage (i.e. similar refrigerants must be stored together.
  9. Adequate fire fighting equipment must be available.
  10. The containers must not be overfilled.
  11. All containers must be clearly labelled with the type of refrigerant they contain.
  12. Flammable refrigerants must be stored in a locked ventilated area with the necessary safety signage away from any ignition source.

Disposable Cylinders

Do not re-use disposable cylinders.

Once the disposable cylinder is empty, open valve, remove the safety plug and punch a hole in the side of the cylinder with a brass punch.

The disposable cylinder is now ready for recycling.

WARNING: Failure to follow these instructions for safe disposal of the non-refillable refrigerant cylinder can result in an immediate release of contents resulting in personal injury, property damage or both. Read all warnings on cylinders.

Thank you for the question Elias, I hope that this helps your setting up your procedures and safety files.


  1. ACRA
  2. SANS 10147
  3. OHS act

About Grant Laidlaw

Grant Laidlaw

Grant Laidlaw is currently the owner of the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Academy (ACRA) in Edenvale. He holds a Bachelor of Business Administration and an associate degree in educational administration. He has a National Technical Diploma and completed an apprenticeship with Transnet. He has dual-trades status: refrigeration and electrical. He has been involved with SAIRAC for over two decades and served on the Johannesburg committee as chairman and was also president between 2015 and 2018. Currently he is the SAIRAC national treasurer.

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