Refrigerant Handling Safety

George Davis

Summer is approaching fast, and you’re going to be servicing your air conditioning units as well as your customers. It’s a very busy time for the air conditioning industry and you need to take care and follow all the safety guidelines in order to avoid injury to yourself, property damage, as well as damage to the environment.

Refrigerants used in refrigeration and air conditioning systems must be used properly to avoid potential hazards. Most refrigerants have low boiling points and present dangers of frostbite and eye damage. Refrigerant liquids with higher boiling points can cause respiratory and skin irritation. Refrigerants can also damage the environment if handled improperly. In the mid-1970s it was suggested that freon and other CFCs were, by chemical reaction, destroying the ozone present in the stratosphere. Depletion of the ozone could create a threat to animal life on the Earth because the ozone absorbs ultraviolet radiation that can induce skin cancer. The use of Freon in aerosol-spray containers was banned in the United States in the late 1970s. By the early 1990s, accumulating evidence of ozone depletion in the Polar Regions had heightened worldwide public alarm over the problem, and in 1992 most of the developed nations agreed to end their production of freon and other CFCs by 1996.

Here are guidelines for the safe handling of refrigerants.

  • Employers must ensure that personnel who handle refrigerants are properly trained in their safe use and handling, and have reviewed the MSDS for the refrigerant used.
  • Wear safety goggles and gloves at all times when handling refrigerants or servicing a refrigeration system.
  • Wear the proper respiratory protection while working with refrigerants. Check the MSDS for the proper level of protection required.
  • Proper ventilation or respiratory protection is required for any work on equipment in an enclosed area where a leak is suspected.
  • Always ventilate or test the atmosphere of an enclosed area before beginning work. Many refrigerants which may be undetectable by human senses are heavier than air and will replace the oxygen in an enclosed area causing loss of consciousness.
  • Inhaling refrigerants can cause sudden death. Intentional inhalation of refrigerants to produce intoxication can cause the heart to cease functioning properly and may be fatal.
  • Refrigerant cylinders should never be filled over 80% of their capacity (liquid expansion may cause the cylinder to burst).
  • Check the I.C.C. cylinder stamp to ensure the cylinder is safe. Always check the refrigerant number before charging to avoid mixing refrigerants.
  • Always check for the correct operating pressure of the refrigerant used. Use gauges to monitor the system pressure.
  • Always charge refrigerant into the low side of the system to avoid damaging the compressor, or causing the system to rupture.
  • R-717 and R-764 are very irritating to the eyes and lungs. Avoid exposure to these refrigerants.
  • R-717 is slightly flammable and mixed with the proper proportions of air may form an explosive mixture.
  • Fluorocarbon refrigerants should be treated as toxic gases. In high concentrations, these vapors have an anesthetic effect, causing stumbling, shortness of breath, irregular or missing pulse, tremors, convulsions, and even death.
  • Ammonia is a respiratory irritant in small concentrations and is a life threatening hazard at 5,000 parts per million (ppm).
  • Ammonia is also flammable at a concentration of 150,000-270,000 ppm
  • Always stand to one side when operating an ammonia valve. Ammonia can burn and damage the eyes, or cause loss of consciousness. Ammonia leaks may be detected by their smell, or with a sulfur candle or sulfur spray vapor.
  • Refrigerant oil in a hermetic compressor is often very acidic causing severe burns. Avoid skin contact with this oil.
  • Liquid refrigerant on the skin may freeze the skin surface causing frostbite. If contact with the skin occurs, wash immediately with water, treat any damaged skin area for frostbite, and seek medical treatment.
  • Never cut or drill into an absorption refrigeration mechanism. The high pressure ammonia solutions are dangerous and may cause blindness if the solution contacts your eyes.
  • Ensure that all liquid refrigerant is removed and the pressure is at 0 psi before disassembling a system.
  • Do not smoke, braze, or weld when refrigerant vapors are present. Vapors decompose to phosgene acid vapors and other products when exposed to an open flame or hot surface.
  • When soldering, brazing, or welding on refrigeration lines, the lines should be continuously purged with low pressure carbon dioxide or nitrogen.
  • Following work, the lines should be pressure tested with carbon dioxide or nitrogen.
  • If refrigerant makes contact with the eyes, immediately wash with mineral oil as this absorbs the refrigerant. Then wash your eyes with a prepared boric acid solution.
  • If the refrigerant is ammonia, wash with water for at least 15 minutes. Seek medical attention as soon as possible.
  • Purged refrigerants must not be released into the atmosphere. Federal law governs their disposal, and they must be collected and disposed of properly.
  • Do not allow temperatures where refrigerant cylinders are stored to reach 125 degrees F. Temperatures can easily exceed 125 degrees F in your vehicle during hot weather.
  • Inspect refrigerant cylinders regularly. Do not use the cylinders if they show signs of rust, distortion, denting, or corrosion. Store cylinders secured and upright in an area where they will not be knocked over or damaged.

Special Note: Always check MSDS before handling any refrigerant and follow all safety requirements. Exposure to large concentrations of fluorocarbon refrigerants can be fatal. In high concentrations, these vapors have an anesthetic effect, causing stumbling, shortness of breath, irregular or missing pulse, tremors, convulsions, and even death. Take care and be safe…

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