Anhydrous Safety is No Accident
Apr 19, 2013
The late start to this year's fertilizer application in parts of the Corn Belt give us a pause to revisit some basics of anhydrous safety. Anhydrous ammonia is the Nitrogen source of choice for many corn growers and is currently the least expensive form of N by the pound at $0.52/lbN. Dry urea is a favorable alternative, but is a little more pricey by the pound at $0.62/lbN. Urea is less dangerous to handle and more user friendly, and some growers have made the switch this year from the unpredictable NH3 to simple dry urea.
Experts agree that the best policy when handling, applying and transporting anhydrous is to slow down and pay attention. A little prevention can go a long way to preserving your safety and that of those around you. Exposure to anhydrous ammonia has both immediate and delayed health implications including severe eye injury, respiratory system damage and skin damage and can be fatal if inhaled or swallowed.
Here are a few tips I have collected from various University extension offices. Your preferred retailer will have a safety checklist and can offer more detailed suggestions.
When you pull up to your local retailer to pick up a tank of NH3, be sure to use a strong hitch pin with the keeper securely in place, and safety chains. Once you pull a nurse tank onto a state roadway, you are under the jurisdiction of the state DOT, and subject to DOT rules. The maximum speed you can go is dictated by the tires on the nurse tank which usually recommend 25mph for a fully loaded tank. Do not transport NH3 at night, and come to a complete stop at all railroad crossings.
Before hooking on, check all hoses and connections. Make sure the flo-meter is in the closed position prior to connecting hoses. Never handle a hose by the valve -- always grip the end of the hose by the valve body and hose. Check the valves on both the male and female halves of couplers. Once you have made all connections, recheck all hoses and connections. Here again, make sure to use the proper sized hitch pin with the keeper in place and safety chains affixed.
Should something go horribly wrong and a spill occurs, remove yourself from areas exposed to destroy anhydrous. Anhydrous ammonia seeks water once in the air and can quickly injure or destroy mucous membranes within the body. If anhydrous escapes in a closed area, evacuate the area immediately and close it off to foot traffic until the area can be cleared.
If anhydrous spills on you, water is the only remedy. DO NOT apply lotions, creams, ointments, salve -- just water. Stay upwind from the release. Carefully remove contaminated clothing. Flush affected skin for 20 minutes with fresh clean water, flush eyes for 30 minutes using an eyewash station if you have one. Just about any source of water will do... the pump outside the hog shed, livestock watering tanks or even the cattle creek that cuts through the waterway. Keep the water tank on the nurse tank full of fresh water at all times.
The important thing is to seek medical attention for even the smallest exposure. Anhydrous ammonia has both immediate effects and delayed effects and while you may think you only ruined a pair of blue jeans, NH3 can cause permanent lung and tissue damage that may only be immediately apparent to a physician. As with everything, early detection is the key to recovery.
The Illinois Department of Agriculture has released the following video on anhydrous safety and it is worth a look. Along with all of the above safety precautions, remember to wear heavy jeans and a long sleeved shirt or coveralls and work boots when handling or applying anhydrous ammonia. Never wear contact lenses, use appropriate eye protection and wear heavy gloves.
An ounce of prevention can save pounds of nitrogen. Anhydrous may be the least expensive form of N by the pound, but the safety hazards can outweigh the benefits if a little extra caution is not exercised Your local retailer has more on NH3 safety and we recommend you have a conversation about a 'worst case scenario' with your supplier.
Alert the authorities for large spills, wear your safety gear, take your time and check your P's and Q's. The explosion in Texas is a sobering reminder that NH3 is nothing to trifle with. But with a little extra care, NH3 can be safely knifed in, and growers can get on with growing.