Ammonia Refrigeration » Emergency Response

Emergency response
Emergency response

Ammonia is considered a high health hazard because it is corrosive to the skin, eyes, and lungs. Exposure to 300 ppm is immediately dangerous to life and health. If the possibility of exposure above 300 ppm exists, use a MSHA/NIOSH approved self-contained breathing apparatus with a full facepiece operated in a pressure-demand or other positive-pressure mode. Ammonia is also flammable at concentrations of approximately 15 to 28% by volume in air. When mixed with lubricating oils, its flammable concentration range is increased. 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.

An emergency action plan (EAP) is a written document required by particular OSHA standards. The purpose of an EAP is to facilitate and organize employer and employee actions during workplace emergencies. The plan must include, but is not limited to the following elements:

  • Means of reporting fires and other emergencies [29 CFR 1910.38(c)(1)]

  • Evacuation procedures and emergency escape route assignments [29 CFR 1910.38(c)(2)]

  • Procedures to be followed by employees who remain to operate critical plant operations before they evacuate [29 CFR 1910.38(c)(3)]

  • Procedures to account for all employees after an emergency evacuation has been completed [29 CFR 1910.38(c)(4)]

  • Rescue and medical duties for those employees who are to perform them [29 CFR 1910.38(c)(5)]

  • Names or job titles of persons who can be contacted for further information or explanation of duties under the plan [29 CFR 1910.38(c)(6)]

Additional Information

An Incident Command System/Unified Command (ICS/UC) is an efficient on-site tool to manage all emergency response incidents, and UC is a necessary tool for managing multi-jurisdictional responses to ammonia releases. Understanding the concepts of ICS/UC is as important for local responders, who generally arrive on-scene first and thus are most likely to implement the management system, as it is for state and federal organizations that may be joining the ICS/UC. The senior emergency response official responding to an emergency is responsible to:

Additional Information

Figure 1. Eyewash station

Decontaminate the victim as quickly as possible. Start with the eyes. The whole body, or exposed area, must be flushed with generous amounts of water; this includes the hair, ears, under the chin, and armpits. Water sources such as showers, hoses, eye wash stations, or stock tanks are acceptable [29 CFR 1910.151(c)]

Ensure trained personnel and adequate first aid supplies are readily available [29 CFR 1910.151(b)]

Contact with the Eyes

Even if only a small amount of ammonia enters the eyes, irrigate the eyes with an abundance of water for a minimum of 15 minutes. Continually and thoroughly flush the entire eye surface and the inner lining of the eyelids. Eyes affected by ammonia close involuntarily, so the eyelids must be held open so that water can flush the entire eye surface, as well as the inner lining of the eyelid.

If there is no physician available, continue irrigation for an additional 15 minutes.

Do not wear contact lenses when handling anhydrous ammonia. If ammonia gets in the eyes, the ammonia will get trapped under the lenses causing even more damage. They may also prevent immediate flushing of the eye surface.

Serious eye injury should be treated by an ophthalmologist, but in an emergency, wash with large quantities of water for 15 minutes or more as quickly as possible. In fact, the only real hope for preventing permanent eye injury lies in quick and generous washing.

Figure 2. Squirtbottle

One suggestion for those likely to be exposed is to carry a small, eight-ounce squeezable squirt bottle filled with water, which can be used to get excess ammonia out of the eyes until a larger water supply can be reached. This small amount of water is not sufficient to remove all the ammonia. It is essential that the eyes be irrigated for a minimum of 15 minutes as soon as possible.

Another emergency method is to duck the head in water and rapidly blink and move or rotate the eyes about.

Contact with the Skin

It is essential that any ammonia spilled on the worker be removed immediately and that the worker be moved to an uncontaminated area quickly.

Clothes that have been saturated by liquid ammonia may freeze to the skin. In any case, the victim, still clothed, should get immediately under a shower, if available, or jump into a stock tank, pond, or into any other source of water. Time is important! Remove clothes only after they are thawed and they can be freely removed from frozen areas. If the clothing is removed incorrectly, whole sections of skin can be torn off.

No salves, creams, ointments, or jellies should be applied to the skin during a 24-hour period following the injury since this will prevent natural elimination of the ammonia from the skin. After the 24 hour period, the medical treatment is the same for thermal burns. A physician should view any second- or third-degree freeze burns of the skin.

Taken Internally

This is what you should do if ammonia is ingested:

  • Call a physician.

  • If conscious, have the victim drink large amounts of water.

  • Do not induce vomiting if the victim is in shock, in extreme pain, or is unconscious.

  • If vomiting begins, place the victims face down with head lower than hips. This prevents vomit from entering the lungs and prevents severe injury.


In all inhalation exposures, severe or minimal:

  • Take the exposed workers at once to a clean, uncontaminated area.

  • Watch workers exposed to low concentrations for a short period of time. They will usually require no treatment and can be released.

  • For severe exposure to higher concentrations:

    • Call a physician.

    • Administer oxygen by an individual who is trained and authorized to do so by a physician. This will help relieve pain and symptoms of lack of oxygen.

    • Begin artificial respiration immediately if the patient is not breathing.

    • Keep victim warm (but not hot) and rested until transported to the hospital.


In any accident involving contact with ammonia with the eyes or skin:

  • Immediately flush the affected area with large quantities of clean water.

  • Place the injured person into a container of clean water or under an emergency shower.

  • Provide the injured worker with first aid treatment and call a physician at once in the case of extreme exposure. Give the physician a complete account of the incident.

  • Seconds count, wash the ammonia away with water immediately.

Additional Information

  • Ammonia. NIOSH/OSHA, (1989). These are OSHA comments from the January 19, 1989 Final Rule on Air Contaminants Project. This rule was remanded by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the limits are not currently in force.

  • Ammonia Refrigeration. OSHA Safety and Health Topics Page.

  • Ammonia Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet. The Right to Know Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet, New Jersey Department of Health, (September 2007). This document contains acute and chronic health hazards, identification, workplace exposure limits, medical tests, workplace controls and practices, personal protective equipment, handling and storage, questions and answers, definitions, and emergency response information for fires, spills and first aid.

  • Criteria for a Recommended Standard: Occupational Exposure to Ammonia - Biologic Effects of Exposure. US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Publication No. 74-136: Section III, (1974). This document describes the various health effects of exposure to ammonia.