With the recent ammonia leak on the International Space Station and the devastating fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, we are reminded of the potentially catastrophic results of making a mistake with ammonia handling. In the wake of a major disaster, no one wants the world’s attention pointed toward them as they have to admit that safety procedures were not quite up to par and they could have done something to prevent the disaster.

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The challenge for those working with ammonia is clear: Become an expert when working with this hazardous material and make sure it is identified properly wherever it is used.

“Anhydrous ammonia [NH3] is classified as a hazardous material [inhalation hazard] by USDOT. Handling and storage of the product requires specific knowledge and personal protective equipment be used,” says Kevin Runkle, director of regulatory services at the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association, Bloomington, Ill. “Depending on the duration and quantity of the exposure, exposure to NH3 can cause minor irritation, asphyxiation or death, so training every three years is required wherever the product is stored or handled.”

And because ammonia plays a large part in the hydraulic fracturing — “fracking” — boom underway in North Dakota and other Midwestern and Eastern states, safety issues are likely to increase. Large contracts are being awarded for new ammonia factories, most notably a new $850 million ammonia plant to be built in Waggaman, La.; a $700 million ammonia plant to be built in St. James Parish, La.; a $1.4 billion plant in Iowa; and a $1.2 billion plant in North Dakota.

Labeling Reinforces Ammonia Safety Program

While many tools are used to monitor pipe integrity such as flow monitors, pressure sensors and leak detectors, it is critical to be able to quickly find and correctly identify each pipe. That is why complete and proper labeling is crucial. The recognized and generally accepted good engineering practice (RAGAGEP) is IIAR Bulletin 114. It is often cited by OSHA and the EPA, and it provides excellent guidance on the proper labeling of ammonia piping and equipment.

In the wake of a major disaster, no one wants the world’s attention pointed toward them as they have to admit that safety procedures were not quite up to par and they could have done something to prevent the disaster.

Labeling lets workers know what the contents are, the direction of flow, potential hazards and preventive measures. Following the correct requirements and standards will help ensure government compliance, and it will prevent a worker from erroneously cutting into or misrouting an ammonia pipe thinking it was water or some other liquid.

Contractors and end users may label ammonia pipes throughout a facility, including the engine room, roof, process areas where ammonia pipes are shown, and above the ceiling — anywhere there is an ammonia pipe.

Pipe marking has evolved over the years with new supplies and labeling systems to accommodate a range of workplace environments, from withstanding harsh wash-down chemicals to surviving in outdoor applications.

Depending on the environment and the material used for pipe marking, the pipe markers should be inspected and cleaned or replaced on a regular basis for optimal legibility.

Labeling Options for Ammonia Pipe Marking

Facility and safety managers have options when it is time to label pipes:

     • Ordering signage from a catalog or website.

     • Creating on-demand custom signage with an in-house printer.

When you are not in a rush, only have a couple of pipes to mark, or just need a generic sign, the first option is fine. But safety can be enhanced with custom signs and pipe markers. And for large pipe-marking jobs, the cost of purchasing individual pipe markers can be prohibitive.

Thermal transfer label printers are available that use labeling supplies to produce ammonia pipe markers that are durable and highly visible. Look for label printer and supply manufacturers that offer thorough testing and excellent warranties, and select a manufacturer with experience with industrial pipe-marking applications. Some manufacturers of thermal transfer printers thoroughly test each label material they sell through in a test laboratory for adhesive strength, print quality, surface quality, weather and abrasion resistance, chemical resistance, tensile strength and elongation, and film and adhesive thickness.

Other testing capabilities include:

     • Simulating outdoor weathering, general use and specific surfaces. Technicians utilize ASTM G155, an industry-wide weathering standard that includes UV exposure — an important part of how colors fade and labels age — visible light exposure, water spray and controlled heat.

     • Using a Taber Abrasion machine to test the abrasion resistance of inks and overlaminates.

Become an Ammonia Expert

“There are yearly changes in regulations — changes in product applications — so repetition is necessary to keep awareness high,” says John Murdaugh, director of industrial refrigeration at Apex Refrigeration, Phoenix. Apex plans, conceptualizes, installs and services industrial and commercial refrigeration systems as well as process heating and cooling systems to customers in the western United States.

Murdaugh’s words challenge facility and safety managers to be experts in ammonia hazards. To be an ammonia expert, continuous training is critically important to ensure safety is enforced, understood and established. You will need knowledge on several fronts:

     •    Regulations associated with ammonia.

     •    How to prevent and repair leaks.

     •    How to repair equipment.

     •    Awareness of new equipment.

Safety awareness, education and understanding are moving targets. Facility and safety managers need to be ahead of the curve before changes are implemented. When working with ammonia, one can never sacrifice cost for safety. After all, what good is an efficient process when managers, plant staff and our surrounding communities are living in fear for their lives from ammonia explosions? 

Web Exclusive: Pipe-Marking Guide Online

An ammonia pipe-marking guide describing the proper sizing, placement, components (ammonia pipe markers are different from standard pipe markers), abbreviations, physical state and pressure level for several kinds of ammonia pipe is available online. The one-page guide summarizes the requirements to be met when labeling ammonia pipes based on the standards of the International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration (IIAR). Download it at http://bit.ly/137RQFg.