USA: A fruit juice processor that experienced three ammonia refrigeration leaks in the past year faces fines of $154,000 by Washington State’s Department of Labor & Industries (L&I).

The Johanna Beverage Company of Spokane has been accused of putting employees at risk through a lack of emergency planning.

In each of the incidents – one in December 2015 and two in August 2016 – employees were unsure what to do, which way to run to escape the corrosive vapours and how to call for emergency help. In one of the August incidents, panicked employees ran downwind of the leak into the vapour cloud. Eight employees were exposed; one was sickened and taken to the hospital. One incident also resulted in the temporary shutdown of Interstate 90 as fire crews responded to the leak thought to have involved between 600lb and 800lb of ammonia.

As a result, the L&I has cited the company for two wilful violations, each with the maximum legal penalty of $70,000. The beverage business has also been cited for two serious violations with a $7,000 penalty, also the maximum.

The first wilful violation is for not developing a comprehensive written emergency response plan on what to do in the event of an ammonia leak. The plan should include information on communication, pre-emergency planning, and drills.

After the disorganised response to the first leak in December 2015, the local fire department advised the company to call 9-1-1 sooner and to prepare a detailed employee emergency evacuation plan. However, months later there were two more ammonia leaks, which the L&I claims also were met with disorganised evacuations, poor communication and miscommunication with the fire department.

The second wilful violation was cited for not providing employees with emergency response training that specifically addressed what to do during an ammonia leak. That citation was also for not designating and training specific employees to assist in a safe and orderly evacuation.

One of the serious violations Johanna Beverage was cited for was for not providing an ammonia alarm system to alert employees when they need to evacuate the work area. The second serious violation was for not ensuring that voluntary use of respirators was done safely.

The employer has 15 business days to appeal the citation.