Fatal ammonia incident at ice rink sparks safety concerns

But experts point to the rarity of such incidents and the advent of safer technology like low-charge chillers.

By Elise Herron

On Tuesday, October 17, tragedy befell the small Canadian town of Fernie, B.C. Around noon, emergency crews were called to the Fernie Memorial Arena, an ice rink in the center of town.

There, first responders found that three men — Wayne Hornquist, 59; Lloyd Smith, 52; and Jason Podloski, 46 — had died as the result of an ammonia leak.

In the weeks following the incident, while the town of just over 5,000 mourned, local headlines ranged from alarmed (“Expert sounds alarm on ammonia at public rinks”) to reassuring (“Rinks safe despite use of ammonia to chill ice, cities say”). One of B.C.’s elected officials, Wayne Stetski, even took to calling for a countrywide phase-out of ammonia in ice rinks, opting for CO2 instead.

In any event, the incident left some people scared of the refrigerant that many Canadian ice rinks use.

But several industry experts on ammonia use and safety that spoke with Ammonia21.com said that vilifying ammonia is unnecessary and unwise.

What should happen, they agree, is further education on the nature and history of the refrigerant — which has been used for over a century, is readily available, energy-efficient, self-alarming, and environmentally friendly with a GWP and ODP of zero.

“If you arbitrarily jump to the conclusion that ammonia should just be banned, it’s just not thinking through all the facts and understanding the situation,” said Dave Rule, president of the International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration (IIAR), an ammonia education and standards-writing body.

In the ice rink industry, ammonia has been extremely safe, said Art Sutherland, Canadian ice rink specialist and president of Accent Refrigeration Systems, Victoria, B.C. Sutherland, who entered into the ice rink industry in 1974, said there hasn’t been a fatality in an ice rink due to ammonia in his or his predecessor’s lifetime. “It’s not something we hear about on a daily, weekly, yearly basis,” he said. “It just hasn’t happened in our working lifetime.”

As a result, when a fatal accident does take place, “there’s probably a tendency to overreact,” Sutherland said. “For the families of those who lost lives, it’s tragic. It’s just terrible. But, we are doing an awful lot to make [ammonia-based systems] safer.”

The investigation into what caused the leak is still ongoing, but Sutherland speculated as to what my have happened. He said the refrigeration system being used at the Fernie Memorial Arena was a 60-year-old traditional ammonia-based system ­– meaning it would have had a charge of around 800 lbs.

Sutherland guesses some sort of catastrophic leak at the chiller during facility maintenance may have led to the fatalities. But, he added, there’s no way to be sure until official investigation conclusions are released.

While it’s not uncommon for Canadian ice rink refrigeration systems to be so old — many of the country’s rinks were built around 50 to 60 years ago, Sutherland said ­– upgrades usually take place sooner in the system’s lifespan, as new innovations in technology emerge.

Low-charge: a safer solution

One of the innovations enabling safer ammonia use is low-charge system development.

Sutherland said that many of the new chillers Accent Refrigeration now installs use only one-fifth the ammonia charge of traditional systems.

“On newer systems, we’re getting the ammonia charge down to less than 150 pounds,” Sutherland said, “and in some cases less than 100 lbs.”

On top of that, the ammonia is increasingly being installed outside of the rink in secondary chiller systems — where the ammonia is used to cool a secondary refrigerant like water or glycol and thus never actually enters the rink. The company has already installed around a dozen low-charge ammonia systems, including four low-charge ammonia package systems to ice rinks in Anchorage, Alaska; Saskatchewan province; Langford, B.C. ;and one in New Zealand.

“They’ve been operating very well,” Sutherland said. “There’s no difference between the packaged systems and an indoor unit other than we do them in outdoor machine houses that get them outside the rink.”

In part, the very long fatality-free period of ammonia use has been due to the strict regulations in place wherever the refrigerant is used.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversee regulations for ammonia use in the U.S., and Technical Safety BC does the same in B.C.

In addition, frequent meetings between end users, contractors, standards-writing bodies like IIAR and regulatory agencies occur in North America to ensure that best practices are being followed, said Rule and Sutherland.

IIAR even launched an Academy of Natural Refrigerants program last year to provide the industry with certificate courses on safe ammonia use and design.

“What IIAR does is address the deficiencies in the industry to make sure that workers on site have proper safety training,” Rule said. “You just have to keep reminding everyone what the proper procedures and practices are and encourage them to follow those procedures.”

IIAR has also become the go-to organization for ammonia safety standards, most recently encapsulated in its updated IIAR-2 standard.

Safety’s not just for ammonia

The safety regulations on ammonia are stringent, and necessary, because of the refrigerant’s toxicity, as the Fernie incident tragically exemplified.

However, Phil Libbert, application engineer for Calibration Technologies Inc., a manufacturer of gas detection systems, points out there are safety considerations for every type of refrigerant.

“For example, Freons — they are not as toxic, per se, but they can displace oxygen,” he explained. “You may be working in a room with a Freon leak and you can’t smell it. You don’t know it’s leaking until the oxygen level is so low that you may pass out and maybe not walk out.”

On the other hand, “you can smell ammonia,” he added. “I think that gives you an edge over some of these other ones. You know to get your personal protective equipment (PPE) on or get out.”

Ultimately, Libbert agreed, the key to avoiding fatalities in future situations with any type of refrigeration is proper training and education.

“I think ammonia is a really good, reliable refrigerant for everyone. It’s just everybody needs to know the risk factors and necessary maintenance procedures to be sure ammonia systems run properly, and to prevent any type of disasters or leaks.”

Looking ahead

In Canada, Sutherland said, ammonia is still a popular refrigerant, though CO2 is starting to gain traction. And in the past few years he’s seen the trend in ice rink refrigeration move towards low-charge ammonia systems.

“We are doing an awful lot to make [ammonia-based systems] safer.”
– Art Sutherland, Accent Refrigeration

Just weeks before the Fernie incident at a meeting Technical Safety B.C. held for major contractors and end users to discuss safety, Sutherland said, “One of the big things that got brought up was limited-charge chillers and getting the ammonia charge down. It was something that had a lot of interest among the arena operators that were there, and I think you’re going to see more push towards [low-charge systems] in future.”

And, all things considered, Sutherland doesn’t predict low-charge ammonia systems installations will stop at ice rinks.

“At the last ATMOsphere America convention [in June, 2017] they were voting on what people felt was the best direction for industrial refrigeration and low-charge was the number one pick.”

This article originally appeared in the Nov-Dec. 2017 issue of Accelerate America magazine:

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