How To Use Anhydrous Ammonia Safely In Farming

Anhydrous Ammonia & Farming Guide

Anhydrous ammonia is frequently injected into the soil in a compressed, gaseous form and is one of the most common sources of nitrogen fertilizer that’s widely used throughout North America. It’s affordable and compared to other forms of nitrogen, lasts for quite a long time in the soil, encouraging the crops we rely on to grow. 

Gaseous, anhydrous ammonia is especially stable in cold soils, and so many farmers inject it into their soil in the fall to get a head start on spring planting by preparing the soil.

Anhydrous ammonia is essential to support the healthy growth of the crops we all need. But it is also an incredibly dangerous chemical that must be handled with care. For example, 83 people were sent to area hospitals in Beach Park, Illinois after an anhydrous ammonia leak permeated the area and created a hazardous fog in the region. 

The cause of the leak? 750 gallons of anhydrous ammonia in liquified compressed gas form released from two 1,000-gallon tanks mounted on a farm trailer pulled by a tractor.

Safety around anhydrous ammonia is essential for safety in farming operations. Here’s what you should know. 

The Dangers of Anhydrous Ammonia

As the National Agricultural Safety Database (NASD) shares, “Anhydrous ammonia has a built-in safety factor—you can’t stand to breathe it.” This is true because no one can voluntarily remain in a space with a high concentration of anhydrous ammonia gas that’s strong enough to do physical damage. Whenever people experience damage or burns to their nose, throat, lungs, eyes, or skin because of exposure to anhydrous ammonia, it’s because of a sudden release or exposure where they cannot escape.

According to Safety and Health Magazine, The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) warns that exposure to anhydrous ammonia can cause:

  • Irritation and burning of the eyes. Severe exposure can result in inflammation of the eye’s membranes, swelling, and sloughing of the eye’s surface cells, and temporary or permanent blindness. 
  • Issues to the entire digestive tract. If ingested, anhydrous ammonia can cause vomiting, abdominal pain, and burns, and/or corrosive damage to the mouth, esophagus, and stomach. 
  • Breathing and respiratory problems. If inhaled, anhydrous ammonia can lead to trouble breathing, wheezing, and chest pain. It may even lead to asphyxiation in poorly ventilated or enclosed spaces. 
  • Swelling and stinging pain of the skin. Severe exposure may also cause inflammation blistering, tissue death, deep, penetrating burns to the skin tissue, and potentially even frostbite.

While anhydrous ammonia is a highly effective fertilizer thanks to its concentrated levels of nitrogen, it poses enough safety risk that it should be handled with extreme caution when used for agricultural purposes. 

Common Accidents with Anhydrous Ammonia

Because of the way it is often stored, anhydrous ammonia can create a dangerous situation when released. These are some common ways that anhydrous ammonia is misused that can lead to serious accidents:

  • Overfilling tanks beyond the recommended fill levels.
  • Accidentally knocking open a hose-end valve.
  • Moving applicator tanks before the filling hoses are disconnected from their nurse tanks.
  • Venting the pressure release valves when someone is in the direct area.
  • A broken transfer hose, especially one that is worn, old, or misused.
  • Forgetting to bleed the hose coupling before disconnecting it.
  • A ruptured low-pressure hose due to pressure build-up.
  • Overturning an applicator or nurse tank while it is in the field or in transit. 

These accidents can lead to plenty of injuries, as well as extensive property damage. 

To minimize this, all equipment should always be in peak condition, and anyone handling the anhydrous ammonia should be thoroughly trained in how to maintain and operate all equipment, and be well informed on the right personal protective equipment and emergency first aid measures to take in the event of an accident.

Proper Protective Measures

Anhydrous ammonia is the least expensive form of nitrogen fertilizer available today, making it the top choice for many farmers. But safety procedures and personal protective equipment (PPE) are essential for safe use.

Personal Protective Equipment

Those working near anhydrous ammonia, operating anhydrous ammonia equipment, or handling hoses should plan to use:

  • A face shield or goggles
  • Loose-fitting rubber gloves
  • A heavy-duty, long-sleeved shirt

A face shield or glasses will protect users where regular glasses will not, and those working around anhydrous ammonia should never wear contact lenses. 

Those who store bulk quantities of anhydrous ammonia will need more PPE on hand, including rain suits or raincoats and gas masks equipped with an ammonia canister filter in the event of an emergency. These ammonia canisters are only effective against low concentration levels of ammonia. In the event of a serious leak, you should call firefighters, who have proper training, breathing apparatuses, and protective suits to safeguard against the effects of ammonia.

Plenty of Water

When someone has been sprayed or otherwise exposed to anhydrous ammonia or concentrated vapors, it can be incredibly harmful. It’s imperative to immediately flush the body and eyes with water to prevent tissue damage. 

Regulations require farm vehicles that use anhydrous ammonia to carry a container that’s filled with five or more gallons of freshwater that’s readily available to flush the eyes and skin. This water should be changed daily to ensure it’s always clean and ready in the case of an emergency. 

Safety specialists say that having a second five-gallon tank of water is essential in case you can’t get to the water container on a nurse or applicator tank. They also recommend that those working near anhydrous ammonia carry a six- to eight-ounce bottle of water in their shirt pocket for an immediate supply of water. This will help anyone affected by an ammonia exposure to flush excess ammonia in the first few seconds until you can get to a larger water supply (like one stored on farm equipment. 

Transferring Anhydrous Ammonia

Many ammonia accidents happen because transfers are not performed properly. When transferring ammonia, all PPE should be worn, and those nearby should have at least five gallons of fresh water on hand in the event of exposure. 

Nurse tanks should be placed on level ground, downwind of filling, close to the second tank so there is no unnecessary strain on the hose. All couplings and connections should be checked to ensure they are free of dirt and debris before hoses are connected. Filler hoses should be carried by the valve body or coupling, never by the valve wheel. 

Nurse and applicator tanks should never be overfilled. Those transferring ammonia should watch the liquid level by opening the 85 percent bleeder valve, where a white fog will appear when it reaches capacity. Tanks should never be filled past 85 percent total capacity of the tank. Plus, it’s important to release pressure from the coupler using a bleeder valve before disconnecting the coupler, releasing the pressure slowly then disconnecting the coupler immediately after. 

Other Requirements

There are countless safety measures that farmers must take when using anhydrous ammonia. Other notable safety precautions include:

  • Using pressurized equipment that meets guidelines set forth by the American National Standards Institute.
  • Performing daily inspections of all tanks and hoses.
  • Checking the liquid and pressure gauges each time you fill nurse tanks. 
  • Performing immediate repairs or replacements when valves or tanks are damaged. 
  • Inspecting all elements that handle anhydrous ammonia at least once per year.

Work with Anhydrous Ammonia Experts

At Airgas Specialty Products, we don’t just specialize in the reliable supply of anhydrous ammonia. We also offer a whole host of services to keep you in safe operation when using anhydrous ammonia. 

From field service to monthly system maintenance, customized ammonia safety training, and more, we can ensure that you use anhydrous ammonia on your farm as safely as possible. To learn more about how we can help you implement safe practices and keep your storage containers in proper condition, connect with us today