By Andrew Perks

With the advent of Covid, most people are now aware of the term PPE: Personal Protection Equipment.

If we had discussed this topic this time last year there would have been some strange looks. Remember how we all thought those Orientals had lost the plot walking around with their masks on? Now it is a fact of life.

As we get more familiar with this new ‘normal’, we are becoming more and more complacent with the whole thing. People tell me they are so over this – well the fact is it’s not over with us. At the end of the day we are responsible for our own safety and that of those around us. This is not a lecture on Covid but the general requirement for PPE where we work, and now also where and how we live.

When it comes to the workplace the OHS Act is quite clear that the PPE that companies make available to their employees must be directly applicable to the work they are involved in, and their environment. The OHS Act stipulates that employees must be issued PPE, be trained in its use and be adequately supervised. Now, if we go back to Covid, how many of those we come in contact with are doing the social distancing and the wearing of masks. As I travel around, I am quite shocked to see how the standards are being blatantly disregarded – it’s scary out there.

But this brings me back to the topic for this article: the complacency in our Ammonia industry with regard to standard operating procedures and the use of PPE. Our companies are obliged to supply us with the correct PPE and we are obliged for our own safety to use it. Yet the large percentage of incidents and injuries in our industry are caused by human error and straightforward omissions. It may surprise you that the majority of fatalities in the Ammonia industry are from draining oil. Yes, something as simple and straight forward as that.

At the end of the day the prescribed PPE needs to be readily available and be comfortable to use. I know companies draw up Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) where the tasks are specified and the appropriate PPE specified. Sounds great but firstly how many people have actually seen the SOP? Each task needs to be addressed independently, a risk assessment drawn up, and signed off before any work commences. The standard SOP is the broader guide as it is not possible to cover all tasks in its scope of work for different sites, each with their own specific conditions.

The other question is how often the standard SOPs are revisited and modified? Take the person filling oil into a Witt GP51 Ammonia pump. For anyone who has done it, it’s a simple procedure. Firstly, close the valve that separates the oil reservoir from the oil chamber on the pump, loosen off the filling plug to vent any Ammonia, remove the plug and fill with oil.

How easy can that be? When the Ammonia smell has gone who needs a mask? It’s easier to work without one. Well I have news for you. There is a small relief valve on the oil chamber that vents into the oil reservoir, so whether you like it or not you are potentially in danger. The SOP didn’t cover for that as the addition of this relief was a new one, and you guessed it, the release valve failed – covering the technician’s face in a mixture of oil and Ammonia.

He was lucky. But he forgot the cardinal rule when working with a hazardous medium – protect yourself at all times. At the very least he should have had a face visor, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20 vision. 2020 will never mean the same again will it?

We will talk more about PPE in the next article.