IIAR International Workshops Address Safety

On Monday, June 3 at about six o’clock in the morning, a fire broke out at a plant containing an ammonia refrigeration system which belonged to the Baoyuanfeng Poultry Company in the city of Dehui, in the Jilin Province of Northeastern China. Initial press reports included imprecise or contradicting explanations of the cause of the incident such as “negligence by company management and supervisory authorities” and noted that the company failed to implement workplace safety programs, eliminate hazards and conduct safety drills and training. Tragically, this incident led to the death of 119 individuals at the facility in addition to 60 individuals with injuries, some serious. The fact that safety exits were either locked or blocked – which is apparently a common practice to prevent workers from stealing or avoiding work and is frequently reported in the press – helps explain the high loss of life. The coverage also echoed calls for the government to pay more attention to the issue of worker safety.

The government later announced that “initial investigations into the cause of fire indicated that ammonia gas had triggered explosions.” To this, it added factors including “flammable building materials, poor design of escape exits and insufficient fire prevention equipment.” A source from the Chinese Association of Refrigeration provided a more nuanced explanation from the Chinese government: a short circuit in a processing workshop caused the initial fire, igniting nearby combustible materials; the resulting heat led to the bursting of ammonia piping and or equipment. The leaking ammonia is said to have led to more fire and explosions. One IIAR member in China commented that the formal investigations of such incidents tend to be prolonged and are subject to manipulation due to political motivations.

According to former IIAR President Bruce Badger, this incident “was completely unnecessary for so many reasons. However, we should discuss all the ways that an electrical explosion should not have resulted in an ammonia explosion. The current machinery room designs in China, including gas detection and ventilation must be must be improved to meet IIAR Standards or similar accidents could occur.” Such is the message that IIAR will continue to convey to its allies in China. IIAR will participate in a technical seminar in China later this year and, while there, will be discussing an initiative to provide and translate IIAR training materials for cold storage and food processing facilities designed by China’s Internal Trade Engineering Design and Research Institute.

On April 10, an ammonia gas leak occurred at a soft drink facility in San Jose, Costa Rica, setting off an alarm at 11:20 am. Several hundred people were evacuated from the facility and the surrounding area, including a school and a kindergarten. The hazardous materials unit of the fire department was able to enter the area where the leak occurred and control the emergency. The fire department stated that the emergency occurred as a result of a valve rupture, which caused the ammonia leak.

At IIAR’s next Industrial Refrigeration Seminar for Latin America, to be held in Costa Rica on October 15 and 16, a number of presentations will cover issues related to ammonia awareness and safety. The seminar will begin with a presentation describing ammonia properties, health effects of ammonia exposure, and risk analysis of ammonia as a refrigerant. This will be followed by a 100 minute workshop on ammonia handling which will cover personal protective equipment, ammonia transport, appropriate materials for use with ammonia, safety precautions, ammonia tank installation, and ammonia leaks. In light of the news of the ammonia safety incident just described, Ernesto Rodriguez of Hansen Technologies offered to present an overview of the fundamentals and applications of ammonia leak detection technology in order to stress the importance of ammonia safety to members of the ammonia refrigeration community in Central America. Finally, representatives of Danfoss, Parker and Hansen will participate together in a workshop on valve maintenance procedures which hopefully will help prevent future incidents in the region resulting from malfunctioning valves.

Besides the increased focus on ammonia safety in the IIAR Latin American seminars, IIAR has begun developing a Spanish language version of the Ammonia Safety series of education and training materials which includes modules covering personal protective equipment and emergency response.

The safety record of ammonia refrigeration applications in any region can impact the reputation, regulatory environment and well being of the ammonia refrigeration industry worldwide. That is why IIAR is now working to provide the knowledge that enables the safe and efficient use of ammonia as a refrigerant globally and must continue working to expand this effort to other regions around the world.