Many of the refrigerants traditionally used in refrigeration and air conditioning systems in Australian work places are non-flammable, non-toxic , synthetic greenhouse gases (SGGs) that have a high global warming potential (GWP). The use of alternative low GWP refrigerants is increasing due to the growing national and international concern regarding the resulting atmospheric effects of SGGs. Some low GWP alternative refrigerants are flammable and this represents a significant change for work health and safety standards.
A new draft code is being developed and will be proposed as an approved code of practice under section 274 of the Work Health and Safety Act (the WHS Act). THE AIRAH (Australian Institute of Refrigeration, Airconditioning, and Heating) has released the draft Code of Practice for Flammable Refrigerants, subject to feedback and comments and will close on 15 April 2013.
It was proposed to be legislated in collaboration with the industry and Work Safe Australia to inform the public on managing work health and safety risks associated with the manufacture, installation, design, operation, and disposal of refrigeration and air conditioning equipment and systems that has flammable refrigerant.
The Code specifically referred to all stationary refrigerating systems of all sizes including airconditioners and heat pumps that are to be charged with flammable refrigerants with a refrigerant classification of A2, A2L or A3 or any other refrigerant that meets the criteria to be classified as A2, A2L or A3 refrigerant. It also applies to larger systems such as chillers and plant room equipment where all the applicable regulations and standards that can be complied with.
Flammable refrigerants pose significant risks if applied inappropriately in refrigeration and airconditioning equipment (especially in white-collar offices) that is not designed for their use. Even so, if it is located in places where they are at risk of catching fire.
Equipment designed for use with flammable refrigerants requires additional safety features applicable to work offices, beyond that normally required when using non-flammable refrigerants, in order for the associated risks to be kept as low as is reasonably practical. Refrigeration and air conditioning equipment designed for use with CFC‘s, HCFC‘s or HFC‘s will most likely not have been designed to be used with flammable refrigerants. These systems and equipment should not be used with flammable refrigerants unless all of the following is met or exceeded:
- The equipment manufacturer approves the specific model/s of equipment for use with flammable refrigerant.
- The equipment manufacturer provides written installation instructions.
- The technician is specifically trained to safely handle and use flammable refrigerants.
- The system complies with all current applicable standards and regulations.
To mitigate the risk of carcinogenic refrigerants and therefore limit the use of workplace flammable refrigerant airconditioners, some of the risk factors that will need to be addressed in work health and safety include:
- The source of the heat,
- Nature of the work undertaken,
- Duration of exposure to heat,
- Physical condition and capability of the worker
- Experience of problems arising from work in hot environments.
Control measures as outlined in the Occupational Health Safety (OHS) Regulations 2001, clause 47 include:
- Providing adequate ventilation and air movement in indoor environments that may become hot, appropriate work and rest regimes relative to the physical fitness, general health, medication taken and body weight of each employee exposed to heat are implemented.
- Employers should look at some specific controls they can implement to minimise the health risk. These can include:
- Allowing workers to start earlier to avoid the heat
- Ensuring adequate drinking facilities, providing cool drinking water
- Monitoring temperatures in the workplace by providing fans
- Allowing regular rest breaks in cooler areas
- Installing screening across windows that let in the direct sun