Last month, The New England Candy Company—also known as Necco— was cited by U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). You might be surprised—Necco wafers and Clark Bars, dangerous? These candies are produced at a plant that uses great quantities of ammonia in its refrigeration system.
OSHA fined the company $133,000 with respect to an 8,000 pound release of ammonia in fall 2012. According to OSHA’s Andover Area Office, there were 19 serious violations. Serious violations are those hazards that cause a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm and about which an employer has actual or constructive knowledge.
Among the violations were problems with the process safety management program. Factory plants must analyze, address and reduce hazards that could be catastrophic for workers. In this case, the plant should have minimized the danger of the ammonia, but instead it allegedly didn’t develop safe operating or emergency procedures. It did not inspect machinery adequately. It did not have preventative maintenance procedures for machinery and equipment. Critically, it did not let its workers know about changes to the refrigeration process and it did not train its workers even in simple tasks like using fire extinguishers and appropriate placement of equipment (the wrong kind of motor was used in a hazardous area with combustible dust, for example).
Jeffrey Erskine, the area director responsible for the fining of the plant noted that the consequences of an ammonia release as a result of failing to do the above-mentioned things could be loss of life. Ammonia is commonly used as a refrigerant at a variety of plants. Besides the candy plant mentioned above, it is also used at ice rinks, fertilizer plants, semiconductor production facilities, water and wastewater facilities and in nylon production, among other places. Blueprinting, die hardening and manufacture of cleaning products use compressed ammonia gas. Water treatment plants use liquid ammonia and liquid ammonia is also used as a fertilizer.
In spite of its widespread use, ammonia is a bigger health hazard than many workers may be aware. Lighter than air with a distinct smell, it is capable of quickly corroding tissue in the skin, eyes, and lungs. Under 300 ppm (parts per million) is considered a lower level of ammonia. 300 ppm or above requires positive pressure supplied air, and extremely high quantities of ammonia can require a full encapsulation suit. At 150,000 ppm the ammonia becomes explosive. No work activity should take place under those conditions and workers should evacuate the area.
High levels of ammonia can be difficult to measure with portable monitors. They can be detected through smell and photoionization detectors. Workers who are exposed to ammonia on the job should be familiar with their employer’s workplace procedures regarding ammonia. If you work with ammonia, ask your employer what safety guidelines to follow. For example, if you are exposed to anhydrous ammonia either on the eyes or skin, you should immediately flush the area with water for fifteen minutes.
Workers’ compensation laws exist to protect workers in case of injury. If you are hurt at work and think you may need benefits, do not hesitate to contact an experienced Massachusetts workers’ compensation lawyer like Kantrovitz & Associates, P.C., at 800-367-0871 or through our online contact form.