A Quebec City-area hog processing plant run by Olymel began to restart operations last week after being closed for nearly a week due to a potentially deadly ammonia leak on August 13 that made nine workers sick enough to be hospitalized. The ammonia apparently came from their refrigeration system. The closing affected about 1,000 employees.
The company has been working with a number of government agencies to fix the situation, and to ensure that there was no further risk to its workers or consumers. First, they located the ammonia leak’s origin, in the refrigeration system they use to quick-freeze meat, and they said they will continue to investigate, to make sure they understand what caused the leak and to prevent one in the future.
The plant is a large one, with the capacity to process nearly 38,000 hogs per week. Most of its product is exported to Russia, Japan and the United States.
Workers who are exposed to ammonia tend to inhale it. Once inside the body, it tends to immediately interact with the body’s moisture to form ammonium hydroxide, which can cause irritation of the nose and throat. While ammonia has a strong odor, the longer the exposure, the more likely a person will become desensitized, which can reduce awareness of its presence in the air.
While low levels of ammonia can cause minor skin or eye irritation, higher concentrations can result in serious injury and burns, often to the lungs, which can sometimes cause fluid to build up, or even lesions or sores on the lungs. It can also cause permanent eye damage, including blindness.
Chemical exposure in the workplace is a serious problem, but it can often be prevented, by properly maintaining equipment and training workers on the hazards.