Let’s have a look at one of the most common hazardous substances in use in our primary production driven economy – Ammonia.

Recently my colleagues wrote about managing hazardous substances in general. Now let’s have a look at one of the most common hazardous substances in use in our primary production driven economy – Ammonia.

The number of recent ammonia leak incidents around New Zealand begs the question – ‘how good is our ammonia safety preparedness?’ Whilst no recent incident has seriously harmed a member of the public, the underlying number of incidents gives pause for thought.

Every release incident sits at some level of the safety pyramid. At the top of this pyramid sits a fatality – with the number of incidents that have occurred, is the absence of a fatality good luck or good management?

Every operator has a responsibility to safely manage the materials under his or her charge. Revised Health and Safety legislation in New Zealand also broadens the range of people who could be held responsible in any particular case. All persons have a duty of care where they are participating materially in the management of a hazardous substance.

Ammonia storage and usage, particularly in refrigeration systems, requires a look from several different viewpoints;

  • Human safety of personnel and neighbours
  • The mechanical integrity of the ammonia system and its protective devices
  • The structural integrity of the ammonia system and its supporting structures, including performance under seismic conditions
  • Compliance of the system to local and international regulations and standards
  • The emergency preparedness of the site and local emergency services

A conscientious operator will have a good handle on most of these items, but there are some things that may not have been thought of;

  • Who do we alert in the event of a major incident, and who should be evacuated and to where?
  • What is the likelihood of my protective systems ‘failing on demand’? Will they do the job they are called to do when the time comes?
  • If ammonia spills and is diluted away from the scene, how is that contaminated water managed and how will it be disposed of safely?

Worksafe Queensland published in 2014 the results of a series of audits of ammonia facilities in the Australian state. Its findings showed that basic record-keeping on the systems and emergency preparedness were the most common issues with ammonia sites. Another common fault was a lack of spill containment. Simple issues, but ones that must be dealt with.

Whatever the current state of your ammonia facility, it’s never a bad thing to review where you are at and take care of any omissions.

About the Author
Adrian Dickison

Senior Technical Director - Chemical Engineering

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