Mitigating ammonia risks in food and beverage processing: Best practices and the role of CMMS

Sept. 8, 2023
How a capable computerized maintenance management system can help proactively manage and mitigate the risks associated with ammonia leaks.

Food and beverage processors play a vital role in providing safe, high-quality food products to consumers around the globe. But they also face several unique operational challenges.

One such challenge is managing hazardous substances such as ammonia, which is commonly used in refrigeration systems due to its efficient cooling properties and low cost. However, if ammonia is mishandled or leaks out of equipment onto the factory floor, it can pose a significant risk to worker safety, the quality and safety of products, the environment and the bottom line.

This article will explore the potential dangers of ammonia in the food and beverage processing world, plus detail best practices for preventing ammonia leaks. It will also highlight how a capable computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) can help proactively manage and mitigate the risks associated with ammonia leaks.

Understanding the risks of ammonia in food processing

Anhydrous ammonia (NH3) is a colorless gas with a pungent odor. It is widely used at food processing facilities for refrigeration, bulk storage and flash freezing due to its excellent thermodynamic properties and cost-effectiveness. However, while ammonia is safe when properly stored and used in equipment, exposure to even low levels of ammonia can be hazardous.

The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) defines 25 parts per million (ppm) as the recommended airborne exposure (REL) limit for ammonia. When exposed to low levels of ammonia (>25 ppm), humans may experience respiratory issues, eye and skin irritation.  At high enough concentrations (100-500 ppm), prolonged exposure can lead to death. The Immediate Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) concentration for ammonia is just 300 ppm (CDC).  Moreover, ammonia leaks can have detrimental effects on the environment, such as contaminating water supplies or harming wildlife.

Ammonia leaks can occur for a variety of reasons, including equipment failure, corrosion, inadequate or improper maintenance, or accidents. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the most common causes of ammonia leaks are plant upsets, maintenance errors, piping failures, collisions, hose failures and hydraulic shocks.

No matter the cause, when an ammonia leak happens, the consequences can be severe. From a business perspective, ammonia leaks can result in injuries or fatalities, costly shutdowns, contaminated food products, damage to both equipment and the company’s reputation, and legal liabilities.

For example, about a decade ago, workers at a large chicken processing plant experienced a massive ammonia leak that resulted in a wave of tens of thousands of pounds of the gas washing over them. More than 100 employees were injured, countless food products were contaminated, and the EPA conducted an investigation that ultimately culminated in a $3 million civil penalty.

Best practices for preventing ammonia leaks

In general, the best way to prevent dangerous ammonia leaks is to adopt comprehensive preventive measures and best practices, such as setting standard operating procedures, protecting piping, valves and seals, and deploying tools to help monitor for leaks.

Below are some additional key best practices that will help effectively prevent ammonia leaks:

  • Regular inspections and maintenance: Implementing a comprehensive preventive maintenance program is crucial to preventing ammonia leaks. Conduct regular inspections, address any issues promptly and ensure the integrity of equipment, paying special attention to pipes, valves and compressors. Regular maintenance will minimize the risk of leaks and keep the refrigeration system running smoothly.
  • Training and education: Provide thorough training to employees regarding ammonia safety protocols, including proper handling, storage and emergency response procedures in the event of a leak. Awareness programs promote a culture of safety and ensure that employees are equipped to handle any potential emergencies.
  • Safety equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE): Proper safety equipment, such as gas masks, gloves, goggles and protective clothing, should be readily available to workers. Encourage their use and ensure that employees understand how to properly utilize and maintain equipment that uses or stores ammonia.
  • Emergency response plan: Develop a detailed emergency response plan in coordination with local authorities. The plan should outline evacuation procedures, emergency contact information and steps to contain and mitigate leaks. Regular drills and exercises can help ensure that employees are prepared to respond effectively in real-world scenarios.

The role of CMMS in mitigating ammonia risks

A computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) can dramatically enhance an organization’s ability to prevent and mitigate ammonia risks. By providing a centralized platform for managing maintenance activities, automating workflows, facilitating effective preventive measures and making data-driven decisions, a CMMS can help food and beverage processors shift to a predictive maintenance strategy that not only saves time and money, but also ensures the facility is as safe and productive as possible.

Here are just a few of the specifics ways the right CMMS can help organizations successfully mitigate ammonia risks.

  • Asset management: A CMMS provides a centralized platform for managing and tracking equipment maintenance, allowing organizations to monitor the condition of critical assets, schedule regular inspections and proactively address maintenance needs. This reduces the likelihood of equipment failures that could lead to ammonia leaks.
  • Preventive maintenance: A CMMS enables the creation and implementation of preventive maintenance schedules for countless assets, including refrigeration systems. By automating maintenance tasks, organizations can ensure that equipment is regularly serviced, and spare parts are available when needed, minimizing the risk of leaks.
  • Work order management: A CMMS streamlines work order management, facilitating the efficient allocation of resources for equipment inspections, repairs and replacement. This ensures that maintenance tasks are completed in a timely manner, reducing the chances of equipment failures.
  • Inventory control: A CMMS includes inventory management capabilities, enabling organizations to monitor and control the supply of spare parts and chemicals, including ammonia. This helps prevent downtime by ensuring the availability of materials that are frequently needed for maintenance and repair.
  • Documentation and compliance: A CMMS provides a centralized repository for documentation related to all maintenance-related data and activities, including asset performance, safety procedures, training records and inspection reports. This documentation allows organizations to effortlessly demonstrate compliance with the food and beverage industry’s strict safety regulations and standards — which is especially helpful come audit time.
  • Data analysis and continuous improvement: CMMS software can generate comprehensive reports and analytics on equipment performance, maintenance history and the frequency of repairs. By analyzing this data, food processing organizations can identify patterns, trends and potential areas of improvement.
  • Real-time monitoring and alerts: A CMMS can integrate with a wide range of sensors and monitoring devices to provide real-time data on the condition of ammonia systems. It can also automatically send out alerts when anomalies or potential issues are detected, enabling maintenance teams to immediately make data-driven decisions.

The risks associated with ammonia in the food processing industry require proactive risk mitigation strategies that prioritize safety. Fortunately, by implementing best practices such as regular inspections, proper training and leak detection systems, organizations can minimize the likelihood and impact of ammonia leaks.

Moreover, the adoption of a CMMS can help ensure a facility is run safely and responsibly by enabling centralized asset management, preventive maintenance scheduling, work order management, inventory control and real-time documentation and monitoring. By simply leveraging technology and fostering a culture of safety, food and beverage processing organizations can protect their workforce, the environment and their overall reputation from the potential dangers of ammonia.

Candice Potter is an enterprise account executive at Fluke Reliability 

Erin Sidwell is a key account manager for Food & Beverage at Fluke Reliability

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