Keeping Food and Beverage Workers Safe Around Ammonia Refrigeration

Dangerous Ammonia Refrigeration Leaks: How to Keep Food and Beverage Employees Safe

Food and beverage safety is a critical matter for plant room managers, and when it comes to storing food with ammonia refrigeration, ensuring the safety of workers is of utmost importance.

Ammonia is one of the most highly produced chemicals in the world and has become the preferred choice for industrial refrigeration for its superior cooling abilities and low impact on the environment. However, in large doses, it is a highly toxic chemical that can be lethal to humans who come in contact with it.

Many industrial food and beverage facilities use ammonia as a refrigerant but not all have the proper equipment and protocols in place to ensure workers are kept safe when refrigeration leaks occur.

Food and beverage workers have the right to workplace safety. As ammonia is toxic to humans, even in low PPM levels, personal protection equipment (PPE) is needed when working with ammonia.

This article discusses the risks of ammonia exposure, the different types of PPEs available, and the legislative requirements associated with them.

Food and beverage risks related to ammonia industrial refrigeration

Industrial refrigeration safety is very important. Anhydrous ammonia is one of the most effective refrigerants, however, it is also one of the most dangerous.

Despite preventative measures and routine maintenance efforts, refrigerant leaks can, and do occur. At any given time, thread sealants, Schrader caps, neoprene o-rings, or other parts of the refrigeration equipment could wear out and spring a leak, posing a huge risk to a food and safety operator.

Ammonia is a colorless gas with a very distinct and familiar odor that becomes explosive when large quantities are released into the atmosphere and ignited. This potentially lethal gas is compressed under extreme pressure and transformed into a liquid state when used in refrigerated systems. It is referred to as anhydrous ammonia. The clear fluid evaporates quickly at room temperature, and a major ammonia spill poses a danger, not only because it is flammable, but also because it is toxic to humans who breathe it in.

But what effects does ammonia have on humans who are exposed to it? The food and beverage risks increase as the levels of ammonia exposure go up.

Gas is measured in parts per million. (Think of one part being the tip of a needle and the million being a huge haystack.) The sharp, penetrating odor of ammonia can be detectable at very low concentrations, even as small as 5 parts per million (ppm) and its effects on humans can be extremely hazardous.

Here is a quick overview of the impact ammonia can have on humans who breathe in anhydrous ammonia:

  • Risks of Ammonia Exposure
  • Low levels (5 ppm): sharp odor is detectable
  • Moderate levels:  irritation to the eyes and respiratory tract; may cause nausea as well as vomiting
  • High concentration levels (above 50ppm): possible ulcerations to the eyes and severe irritation to the respiratory tract
  • Extremely high concentrations (300 to 500 ppm): potentially fatal; can cause fluid build-up in the lungs and severe shortness of breath.

Emergency Response Preparedness: What emergency response equipment is needed in cases of ammonia leaks?

Since ammonia leaks can and do occur even when preventative measures are taken, it is vital that food and beverage workers be provided with the necessary protective equipment when dealing with refrigerants. Ammonia refrigerants indicate the need for face protection when handling the chemical.  Many facilities fail to have the right personal protection equipment on hand while those that do, most often fail to have the worker use it as required.


Respirator Devices for Emergency Preparedness

A respirator is a device designed to protect the wearer from inhaling harmful dust, fumes, vapors, or gases.  Respirators come in a wide range of types and sizes. Respirators can range from single-use, disposable masks to re-usable models with replaceable cartridges.


Ammonia leak, respirator, PPE

There are two main categories of respirators:

  • Air-purifier respirators. Contaminated air is forced through a filter element.
  • Air-supplied respirators: An alternative supply of air is delivered.

With each category, different technologies are employed to reduce or eliminate noxious airborne contents.

SCBAs for Emergency Preparedness

A self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA can be referred to as a compressed air breathing apparatus (CABA) air pack or simply a breathing apparatus (BA). This provides breathable air in cases where workers are exposed to immediate danger to life and health atmosphere.

Ammonia safety, SCBA, Air Pack

There are two types of SCBAs:

  • Open Circuit SCBA.  This industrial breathing set is filled with filtered compressed air, rather than pure oxygen.  They typically have two regulators a first stage to reduce the pressure of air to allow it to be carried to the mask and a second stage regulator to reduce it even further to a level just above atmospheric pressure.  This air is then fed to the mask via either a demand valve (activating only on inhalation) or a continuous positive pressure valve (providing continuous air flow to the mask).
  • Closed Circuit SCBA.  This type filters, supplements, and re-circulates exhaled gas it is used when a longer-duration supply of breathing gas is needed.

These SCBAs are to be used when the ammonia atmosphere less than 300 ppm and should also be suitable for the temperature in which the SCBA will be worn. It is important for food and safety plant managers to periodically verify that employees are trained and fit tested for the proper use of this emergency equipment.

What industrial refrigeration safety legislation is in place regarding SCBAs in refrigeration plant rooms?

Although legislation requires that vapour gas detectors be installed and in proper working order, there is no direct legislative requirement for personal protective equipment to be worn where ammonia industrial refrigeration is in operation.

In the past, Technical Standards and Safety Authority has confirmed there is no specific obligation under the Operating Engineers Regulation or Boiler and Pressure Vessels Act.  Additionally, there is also no direct requirement for SCBA within the CSA Mechanical Refrigeration Code or is it an enforcement of the Ministry of Labor (MOL).

However, because workers have the right to a safe working environment food and beverage operational managers are required to perform certain responsibilities related to emergency response preparedness.

Food and Beverage Owners/Operational Managers Duties Related to Emergency Response Preparedness

  • Ensure equipment, materials and protective devices are provided.
  • Maintain in good condition.
  • Enforce the use.
  • Provided information.
  • Acquaint the worker proper handling, storage, disposal and transport of equipment.
  • Take every precaution responsible in the circumstance for the protection of a worker.

Additional duties of Employers

  • Monitor and post levels of chemicals in the work place.
  • Limit the workers form exposure of chemical.
  • Provide written instructions to the worker.
  • Carry out training programs.


Food and beverage plant owners and managers must make their own interpretation of these duties laid out by their relevant state or province. It is their duty to adequately prepare staff for emergencies related to industrial refrigerated systems.  Selecting the proper PPE and ensuring workers are fitted and know how to care for and use the equipment properly  will go a long way toward ensuring occupational health and safety in the workplace.

Further information regarding food and beverage safety related to ammonia industrial refrigeration

Plant managers who want to read more detailed information about how to prevent and control exposure in refrigeration systems may find the following links helpful:

Staying Safe Around Anhydrous Ammonia Exposure. This is a blog article written by Industrial Refrigerated Systems that provides many helpful tips related to gas sensors

Ammonia in Refrigeration Systems This is an extensive maual put out by WorkSafe BC. Not only does it goes into detail describing the hazards of ammonia, it also outines how to prevent and control exposure.

Ammonia Refrigeration E-Tool This is a tool created by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration that is focused on identifying and controlling the hazards associated with operating and maintaining ammonia refrigeration systems.

Have questions?

If you have any questions about any of the aforementioned, contact us.

As always, we are happy to help.