Chemical Exposure in Food Processing Plants

Food processing plants should ensure their workers are protected from hazardous fumes, such as ammonia.

While food safety may be on the forefront of some consumers’ minds when doing their shopping this year, food processing companies may also want to step up their commitment to safety in the workplace. As food facilities operate equipment and tools that may emit hazardous gases and fumes, workers may be at risk for long-term exposure to chemicals. 

A food manufacturing company was recently fined by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for $42,000 for six safety violations that may have led to workers being adversely exposed to ammonia. OSHA said the company failed to maintain the facility’s ventilation system, which is one of the most important aspects in ensuring worker safety, especially when it comes to hazardous fumes and gases like ammonia. The ammonia, a hazard that is supposed to be accounted for during proper process safety management, was used for refrigeration at the plant and managed to become released after a forklift damaged an ammonia storage container.

“A proper safety management program is meant to anticipate and plan for an array of failures that could cause the release of hazardous chemicals,” said Casey Perkins, OSHA’s area director in Austin. “Given the multiple deficiencies in this program, it’s fortunate no serious injuries resulted.”

Effects of ammonia on worker health
As a colorless but strong-smelling gas, ammonia can lead to a number of negative health effects, including causing workers to have difficulty breathing and experience chest pain, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). In addition to the symptoms of ammonia exposure, NIOSH said this gas can also become flammable at certain concentrations, usually when there is a 16 to 25 percent mixture of ammonia released into the air.

Companies that want to be proactive in protecting their workers from hazardous chemical exposure often invest in air filtration solutions that allow employers to extract poisonous fumes while still maintaining a productive work environment. Oil mist collectors could also be an important safeguard against the chemical risks of ammonia as contact with lubricating oils could cause the gas to become even more flammable.

“When mixed with lubricating oils, its flammable concentration range is increased,” according to OSHA.” It can explode if released in an enclosed space with a source of ignition present, or if a vessel containing anhydrous ammonia is exposed to fire.”

With chemicals in the workplace potentially mixing and resulting in negative health consequences, companies must invest in the right engineering controls to guard their workers from long-term side effects.

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