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Cal/OSHA issues health hazard alert to wineries concerning ammonia refrigeration systems

When residents of Southern California need to get away for awhile, many of them jump into their cars and head north to wine country. Here, they can take a break from the hectic pace of life in the big city, enjoy the scenery and, of course, visit the region's many wineries. In fact, if you were to ask anyone on one of these weekend excursions what their dream job would be, many of them would probably look out at the rows of grapes and answer "working right here."

While working at a winery is certainly a desirable job, it's important to realize that much like any other job it is not without its risks. In fact, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) recently issued a hazard alert notifying all employers and employees of wineries in the state to exercise caution when using anhydrous ammonia in their refrigeration systems.

The alert was issued in response to a tragic accident back in September in which a winery worker was killed because of anhydrous ammonia exposure. The exact circumstances behind this tragedy are still being investigated by Cal/OSHA.

For those unfamiliar with anhydrous ammonia -- or NH3 -- it is often used under pressure as a liquefied refrigerant. However, it can also pose a significant health hazard if released into the air in even a small amount, as it is corrosive to the eyes, skin and lungs.

Those who have been exposed to small concentrations of anhydrous ammonia -- it gives off a very distinct smell -- frequently complain of burning in the skin and eyes, throat pain and respiratory distress. Exposure to high concentrations of the substance can be life-threatening.

As part of its hazard alert, Cal/OSHA is advising all wineries to do the following:

  • Ensure that all maintenance performed on ammonia refrigeration systems is in line with standard operating procedures/the manufacturer's recommendations
  • Ensure that all personnel in charge of refrigeration maintenance are properly trained
  • Ensure that all employees are trained to recognize the hazards presented by anhydrous ammonia (signs, symptoms, detection) and understand the emergency protocol in the event of an accidental release

The agency is also advising employees to take the following actions in the event they are exposed to anhydrous ammonia:

  • If anhydrous ammonia makes contact with the skin or eyes, immediately flush the affected area with water for 15 minutes
  • If anhydrous ammonia is accidentally inhaled, move to fresh air and secure medical attention

It should be noted that those wineries that use 10,000 pounds or more of anhydrous ammonia are required to abide by certain Cal/OSHA standards.

Stay tuned for updates on this story from our workers' compensation defense law firm ...

This post was provided for informational purposes only and is not to be construed as legal advice.


California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, "Hazard alert - Ammonia safety in wineries," Oct. 2012

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