You think you know what you’re doing?

I visit a lot of refrigerated facilities and I’ve found many of them well prepared for an ammonia incident. The refrigeration operators are trained and knowledgeable in the operation of their systems. Many companies also have others trained to assist in various duties if there is an emergency of any kind. The majority of these facilities do not have specific ammonia response capabilities, but are prepared to take defensive actions to keep their people, the public, and the environment as safe as possible. Some facilities do have people and equipment to carry out a “response” to an ammonia emergency, and they plan and train, so they are prepared. However, I have also found some who think they know what to do and how to properly use their equipment, but they really don’t.

Here are a couple of examples. One outside the refrigeration industry and one within it.

Stuck on a ridge.

It was a beautiful day! Clear skies as far as you could see, mild temperatures, and very little wind. He had been in this area before and had gotten some amazing photos of the mountains as the sun set. Although there were no other people in this remote area, he felt comfortable and confident in himself and his gear.

He was high on a ridgeline that was several hundred feet long and that fell off steeply on both sides. It was a breath taking spot. As the sun started to set the colors were amazing, and he took lots of photos. As the sun set he figured he would camp at one end of the ridge. He knew just the spot that would fit his tent. As darkness closed in, he set up his tent, anchored it with a few rocks and then climbed in for a good night’s rest. He knew where he was, felt comfortably protected in his tent, and had no concerns as he drifted off to sleep.

While he slept the weather began changing. Late in the night the wind started blowing strongly across the ridge and he awoke with the violent shaking of his tent. He figured he better check the anchoring of his tent so he stepped outside. The snow was blowing horizontal, he couldn’t even see a few feet, and he felt like he was going to be blown away by the force of the wind. He turned around to get back into his tent, but it was gone.

In this location and in these conditions trying to hike would likely result in a step off the edge of the ridge and a long, long fall. He had not checked the weather forecast to see that a change was predicted. Had he checked the weather he likely would not have stopped to camp on the ridge, but would have hiked down further into the trees. The conditions he found himself in were extremely serious, even deadly.

The only thing that saved him from dying of hypothermia was he had a cell phone that still had battery life, and fortunately due to his location he still had service. A call to 911 put Search and Rescue in motion, and many hours later they rescued one very cold person who hours earlier had thought he knew what he was doing.

Ammonia response drill

In a visit to a very remote processing plant I had the opportunity to test the response capabilities of the plant personnel to a simulated ammonia incident. Since this facility was remote they had purchased Level A suits, SCBA’s, ammonia meters, and other gear so they could respond to an incident, since there were no other agencies close to provide help without a several hour delay. They had sufficient response equipment to suit-up several people, which in their minds gave them better assurance that they could handle whatever came up. They knew they were prepared, and could handle an ammonia emergency.

The first clue I got about their actual preparedness came when I asked about their gas detection meters. They showed me two of them, both of which had not been calibrated in a long time, and neither worked due to failed batteries. Fortunately, they had another meter, but upon checking it I found it in the same condition as the other two. There were no functioning hand held gas detectors for ammonia or the other hazardous gas the facility had.

“Okay”, I said, “You need to get these detectors operational very soon. Let’s look at your Level A suits.” They brought out four of the suits. I looked at the suits and said to the group, “Gather around here, I want to explain something to you.” I pointed out, “Notice that these suits do not have boots or gloves attached. Also, notice (as I stuck my fingers through a ventilation port) that these are not excelation ports to relieve pressure within the suit, but just open holes for some ventilation. These are not Level A suits.”

Their response was “Oh.” Then after a little thought the Chief Engineer said “I think we do have some Level A suits”. After some looking they did find four Level A suits.

I next asked if we could review their SCBA’s. They had two different kinds of SCBA regulator systems. A couple of the men were somewhat familiar with their SCBA’s so I asked them to demonstrate their use. I have to admit that they did do a seal check, but from there things went downhill. One of the air bottles was not full, and it should have been. A bigger issue was that one of the system regulators kept getting stuck. One refrigeration operator put on the SCBA, but it took him 15 -20 seconds to finally get the air flowing into the mask. Fortunately this was a practice drill and the operator remained calm as he waited for the air to flow.

I next asked the group if some of them wanted to suit up Level A. Many of them volunteered.

The Level A suits had boots, but these are not to be walked on. The flexible boot of the suit should go into an outer, and more protective boot. Their response was again “Oh.” The Chief sent a couple of the group out to find rubber boots. Fortunately, the facility had lots of rubber boots.

I stated to the group it takes time and effort to get into a Level A suit, and it is best done with help. I got two men out of the group to help suit up a third person. First they helped the person get on his SCBA. Then they started to put him into the Level A suit. I had to stop them because they forgot about the additional protection that should be put on the hands. I explained to them that the hands are the point of contact for whatever you’re doing. They had nitrile gloves in the facility, which I had the helpers put on the person being suited up. Then a cotton glove, then the hands are ready to go in the glove of the suit.

Even though the suits were extralarge it was somewhat of a struggle for some of the guys to get in the suit and for the helpers to completely zip it up. The zipper on a Level A suit does not move with the same ease as a coat zipper, or even a Level-B suit. This was a challenge, but they were finally successful in closing up the suit.

I am not sure how the next thing happened, in fact I didn’t even think it could happen. One of the men getting suited up somehow managed to twist the bottom half of the suit 180 degrees. The helpers should have seen this and straightened out the suit. It wasn’t discovered until the team of two were ready for their assignment. I looked at that one member of the entry team and asked “How did that happen?” Then “Guys get him out of that suit.”

This facility had the people and equipment to respond to an ammonia emergency. They thought they knew what they were doing and how to use the equipment. Neither was true. The Chief Engineer was glad we had done this drill and the whole group realized how much more practice they needed, as well as familiarization with their equipment.

Do you really know what you are doing? In some cases it may not matter, but in emergencies it can make the difference between life and death. Luck is not something you want to base your knowledge and preparedness on.