Industry News: OSHA Focuses on Hazards of Exposure to Ammonia

Ammonia is an excellent refrigerant, is low cost and is widely used in commercial refrigeration. On the downside, ammonia however, is quite toxic, with an OSHA PEL of 50 ppm. Ammonia has a strong distinctive odor (odor threshold is ~ 5 ppm), but according to the ATSDR, ammonia causes olfactory fatigue or adaptation, making its presence difficult to detect when exposure is prolonged. This olfactory fatigue seems especially common in older refrigeration sites where visitors often reel back from the overpowering smell, that the people who work there no longer even notice.

There are a number of chemicals that pose gas/vapor exposure risks in the food industry but ammonia leaks reach the headlines more than any other gas and probably send more workers to hospital than any other food related gas/vapor exposure.

OSHA is concerned about these ammonia incidents and it recently renewed its alliance with the Global Cold Chain Alliance, and industry group representing the cold chain industry, representing 1,300 member companies in over 65 countries.

The Global Cold Chain Alliance will provide training to OSHA staff including a webinar on ammonia safety, and develop outreach materials related to ammonia safety and process safety management. Further details can be found in the OSHA press release.

Therefore we anticipate more attention from OSHA regarding ammonia leaks in cold storage facilities. As with any hazardous vapor it is important that appropriate engineering controls, continuous gas detection and where needed PPE are used; and especially that employees are properly trained to identify if the ammonia concentration is too high and what to do about it.