Ensuring workers are safe is a top priority for your company. But how much do you know about the chemicals they use on a daily basis and how they could affect everyone’s health?

The storage and handling of ammonia is a topic that must be prioritized in your workplace safety plan if applicable. This article reveals how to protect your employees from experiencing injury or illness due to ammonia exposure.

What is Ammonia?

Used in many manufacturing and agricultural applications, ammonia is a colorless gas with a very strong pungent odor that’s similar to cat urine or sweat. While it naturally occurs in the environment and inside the human body, it is also one of the most common commercially produced chemicals.

In its purest form, ammonia is known as anhydrous ammonia. This gas easily absorbs moisture, which is why it is often dissolved into water to create ammonium hydroxide.

In daily life, you can be exposed to ammonia in a variety of ways. You might choose cleaning products that contain low levels, or you could even use a low-grade fertilizer with ammonia when working in the garden. When used within normal, natural ranges, ammonia is safe. When working with an industrial level or concentration of ammonia, you must take preventative steps for safety.

What Industries Are Commonly Exposed to Ammonia?

The vast majority of ammonia exposure happens in the agricultural industry, where the use of strong fertilizers is incredibly common. Use of ammonia in gas form often occurs in manufacturing, while other service industries use a compressed clear liquid as a refrigerant.

Ammonia is often used in certain manufacturing and agricultural processes, giving workers in those industries a higher chance of encountering it. Examples include:

  • Agricultural workers who regularly handle large amounts of fertilizer.
  • Specialty workers who handle commercial refrigerants or otherwise work in de-icing activities.
  • Workers in petroleum refining.
  • Those in the mining or metallurgy sectors.
  • Workers in the manufacturing niche involved with rubber, plastics, fertilizers, nitric acid, urea, resins, solvents, and more.

Of course, it is important to keep in mind that this is a small list of the thousands of industries that utilize ammonia in some form. In fact, it is one of the most common industrial chemicals on the market today.

How Are Workers Exposed?

There are numerous ways employees are exposed to ammonia within the workplace. To understand the possibility of this happening, it is important to understand a bit of science.

In the anhydrous form, ammonia is lighter than air and rises, dissipating quickly. But if that gas comes into contact with any form of humidity, it can form vapors that weigh more than air. The result is a noxious gas that stays at a low level and can cause serious health problems to anyone who inhales it.

Other ways workers can be exposed is by skin or eye contact. Even low levels from commercial grade cleaners can cause significant illness or injury. Thus, it is a good idea to enact safety rules for your workers that include always wearing the right PPE required for ammonia exposure.

What Are the Health Hazards Due to Ammonia Exposure?

When it comes to looking at health risks associated with ammonia exposure, it is important to consider both short term and long-term effects. Both are incredibly important to be aware of, as the initial reaction to exposure might not always be immediately apparent.

In the short term, ammonia can cause burns to the skin and eyes immediately upon physical contact. If the exposure is respiratory and at a low level, the side effects can be burning of the nose, throat, and respiratory tract. Freeze burns are also common.

However, the most frightening aspect of ammonia exposure is what happens when the gas interacts with moisture inside the human body. Remember, contact with water creates the dangerous substance known as ammonium hydroxide.

Exposure to this substance within the human body is extremely dangerous and harmful. Internal burns and necrosis of tissue is almost immediate, which can lead to serious injury, blindness, and more.

While most ammonia exposure is not fatal, these immediate reactions can cause long-term breathing problems, vision loss, and other serious internal injuries.

What Are Safety Tips for Working with This Type of Material?

So, how do you keep your workers healthy when handling such a dangerous chemical? Safety around ammonia comes down to three components: safe handling practices, safe storage practices, and correct methods for containment and cleanup.

Handling Practices

When handling ammonia, it is advised for workers to wear full personal protective equipment. However, the exact guidelines for handling products containing this substance will be determined by the chemical level and type used. For example, the protocols for fertilizer are very different from those of industrial cleaning solutions, while the regulations for manufacturing and handling of refrigerants also vary.

If you are in a position where you need to transport ammonia products via the roadway, ensure you’re following all Departments of Transportation (DOT) safety practices according to your local jurisdiction. Keep speeds as low as recommended by local DOT standards, which in some areas is a mere 25 MPH.

Storage Practices

When storing chemicals with high levels of ammonia, it’s important to choose ones that do not corrode. Zinc, copper, and some alloys are not suitable for storing ammonia. Instead, choose carbon steel or aluminum alloys as an alternative. Ammonia and other byproducts should be stored in a cool area that is free from direct sunlight or heat exposure.

Methods for Containment and Cleanup

If your workers experience an ammonia leak or hazard, it is important to get it cleaned up as quickly as possible. If the chemical is in a gaseous form, use a fine mist water hose to knock it down as soon as possible. It is also advised to always have jugs of water around when dealing with ammonia. This can make it easier to rinse skin, eyes, or other surfaces if there is a contamination incident.

What Are the Potential Fire Hazards of Ammonia?

Ammonia is not highly flammable alone. However, exposure to high heat may cause it to explode, which is why it is vital to keep containers away from ignition sources such as open flames, sparks, or areas that experience high fluctuations in temperature. This is especially true when dealing with the gaseous variety, which can become very flammable when exposed to a direct heat source.

When extinguishing a fire caused by ammonia, it is important to remember the various types of materials used to reduce flames. Carbon dioxide, foam, or dry chemical powder are the preferred methods. Water can sometimes reduce flames, but it should only be used as a last resort. Do not attempt to smother the fire, as high temperatures can create a buildup of pressure inside tanks, which can create an explosion hazard.

What Conditions or Materials Should Be Avoided When Working with Ammonia?

As we’ve previously discussed, it is incredibly important to keep ammonia away from high temperatures, open flames, static electricity, and sparks. Direct sunlight and rooms with high heat are also not advised.

In addition, be aware of incompatible materials. Ammonia carries an increased risk of explosion when it comes into contact with:

  • Oxidizing Agents (Peroxides)
  • Strong Acids (Hydrochloric Acid)
  • Halogens (Chlorine)

It is also important to note that ammonia is not corrosive to carbon, steel, or aluminum alloys. This is why it is okay to store it in tanks made from these types of materials.

What PPE Should Be Worn When Working with Ammonia?

As expected, due to the nature of this substance, it is always advised to wear full personal protective equipment (PPE) when handling it. The bare minimum requirements include:

The most important part to remember is that exposed skin should always be completely covered. To ensure that safety protocols are followed, it is vital to create guidelines that require all workers to keep an extra, full set of protective equipment with them when handling ammonia.

As a side note, it is important to ensure workers that regularly wear contact lenses do not wear them when they are handling any form of ammonia. Why? The chemical can adhere the lens to the eye, causing permanent disfigurement and/or blindness almost immediately.

Conclusion: Ammonia Safety Precautions in the Workplace

Employee exposure to ammonia is a valid concern for many businesses. To keep your team safe, it is important to follow the precautions listed above. By following the recommended best practices for the form of ammonia on site—fertilizer, gas, liquid, etc.—you can rest assured that your workers are safe.

Furthermore, it is advised to create an action plan for your team in terms of PPE requirements, handling precautions, and other important aspects such as storage, transportation, and disposal. By making safety guidelines abundantly clear and repetitive, you can help decrease workplace injuries and accidents.