Ammonia in HVAC&R – protect yourself

Andrew Perks looks at what type of personal protective equipment (PPE) is required to ensure your safety during an ammonia release incident…

No doubt you are wondering why I am on about PPE again? Well, I have just come from a site where there are top-rate Level A chemical suits — the type that you would expect hazchem people to use. You would have thought that this would provide the best protection in a release. Think again. The people involved were not trained on how to use them and found them difficult to work in.

Four levels of protective safety suits are currently used in South Africa:

1. Splash-proof suits

These are those plastic chemical suits with a single zip and a Velcro fastening over the zip. They do not seal onto the responder and need some serious taping up to try to make them gas and liquid resistant. They are not recommended for an ammonia release.

2. Level B disposable chemical suits

As you will see, we are lifting the protection level. The sealing of this suit consists of two zips with a fold-over material cover that protects the zips from any chemical penetration through the zips. However, while the sleeves and legs are elasticised, they must still be taped up, along with an around-the-face mask to prevent vapour from penetrating the suit. They take some time to get safely dressed in — anything from 9 to 14 minutes, depending on the user’s proficiency.

These suits are reputed to be able to withstand a direct jet of liquid ammonia up to a pressure of 200kPa.

Level B disposableLevel B disposable chemical suits.

3. Level A disposable chemical suits

We are lifting the protection level to an even higher level. This is a one-piece suit that is completely sealed and has the breathing equipment inside the suit. The suit comes complete with gloves and booties that are attached to the suit. You still need to use it over gloves and boots for further protection and these additional items must also be taped to the suit.

You do not want to have liquid ammonia on the inside of your gloves or boots. And think about it: if you cut the suit when you stand on something, you will lose the seal of the suit. With the breathing equipment inside the suit, you end up pressurising the suit due to the air being exhaled from the set. A further protection.

You may wonder why we are advocating disposable suits? These are emergency suits that are necessary for emergency situations. If the plant conforms with SANS 10147 and is being operated by competent South African Qualification and Certification Committee for Gas (SAQCC) Gas-registered operators and technicians, you really should not have these emergency situations. In reality, if you need to use this protection equipment more than once a year — and that’s a lot — bring the plant into compliance. The safety equipment is not the issue.

Level A disposable chemical suitLevel A disposable chemical suit.

4. Level A full-level hazchem suit

This is the highest level you can achieve. However, there is a cost consideration with this level of protection.

Level A full level hazchem suitLevel A full-level hazchem suit.

For those of you who do not know me, I have been in this industry for 55 years and only once have I ever had to wear Level A full-level protection. Truthfully, I have to admit that the only reason for this experience was that I undertook an unsafe procedure that went badly wrong. I thought I had covered all the bases but there was a valve that did not hold. Fortunately for me, the fire brigade appeared on the scene with the necessary equipment.

Still, I was given a breathing apparatus (BA) set that was undercharged with air and alerted me to it as soon as I entered the area. I had never been trained on the use of a BA set, so I did not know what this whistling thing on my back meant. Fortunately, it had enough air to allow me to persuade the offending valve to close properly.

So, you need to decide what level of protection you want to purchase. The time factor involved in getting dressed up is the major concern: The Level A disposable suit (if you are trained) should take around three minutes, as opposed to the Level B disposable suit that takes around 10 minutes — but is about five times the price. The Level A hazchem suit is priced right out of the market for this level of safety protection. Hopefully, if you need this level of protection, the emergency services will be arriving with the correct equipment or you would have withdrawn to a safe area.

When it comes to the difference in costs for the Level B and Level A disposable suits, what price do you put on someone’s life? Time is everything in an emergency situation.



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