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On-board hazards, part 3: refrigerants

In the final installment of our series on on-board hazards, we'll look at dangers involved in working with refrigerants.

Your vessel's refrigeration system is crucial to protecting your catch, so you'll want to make sure it's working properly. However, you should be aware that you can be exposed to harmful chemicals when working to maintain or repair these systems. Leaks in the system can also release these hazardous substances.

The two main types of refrigerants to watch out for are ammonia and halocarbons.


Though colorless, ammonia should be pretty easy to smell, but you may become desensitized to the smell if you've been exposed to it frequently. It can hurt your lungs, skin and eyes and even threaten your life at high concentrations. It's also highly flammable, presenting a potential hazard in a confined space, as we discussed in our last post.


The halocarbon you're probably most familiar with is Freon, but this group of hazardous chemicals includes a number of different compounds. By 2030, many of these compounds should no longer be used in the U.S., according to OSHA. But for now, workers should watch out for exposure to them.

Although typically not flammable like ammonia, halocarbons can make you dizzy, because they displace oxygen. Watch out for what OSHA calls a "faint sweet odor" and any signs of dizziness - if not detected early enough, exposure can lead to asphyxiation.

Safety precautions

All workers on your vessel should be aware of the potential hazards of your refrigeration systems. Some precautious for working safely around them include:

  • Wearing goggles, gloves and other safety equipment
  • Using gas masks or respirators
  • Making sure everyone is aware of the emergency plan in case of a leak
  • Keeping flammable refrigerants away from any heat sources

Even if you're not personally responsible for maintain your refrigeration systems, it's important to be aware of the hazards. If you're working near the refrigeration system and smell something strange or start to feel dizzy, let your captain and crewmates know right away.

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