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Safety first when working with refrigerants

Technicians should follow certain precautions when working with refrigerants to ensure the safety of themselves and their customers.

The following general safety considerations concerning fluorocarbon refrigerants are an excerpt from RSES’ Refrigeration Usage Certification—a much more in-depth refrigeration training manual available for purchase at the RSES online store.

Before using or handling any refrigerant, personnel should be familiar with safety concerns for the specific product with which they are working. This is particularly important for some of the new replacement refrigerants. Specific product safety information is available from the manufacturer.

Health hazards
Although the toxicity of the fluorocarbon refrigerants is low, the possibility of injury or death exists in unusual situations, or if they are deliberately misused. The vapors are several times heavier than air. Good ventilation must be provided in areas where high concentrations of the heavy vapors might accumulate and exclude oxygen.

Inhalation of concentrated refrigerant vapor is dangerous and can be fatal. Exposure to levels of fluorocarbons above recommended exposure levels can result in loss of concentration and drowsiness. There have been reported cases of fatal cardiac arrhythmia in humans accidentally exposed to high levels. Skin or eye contact can result in irritation and frostbite.

Note that exposure levels for some of the new replacement refrigerants are much lower than for those with which you may be familiar.
In cases of inhalation, move the victim to fresh air. If the victim is not breathing, administer artificial respiration. If breathing is difficult give oxygen. Avoid stimulants. Do not give adrenaline (epinephrine)—it can have potentially detrimental effects on the heart. Call a physician.

In case of eye contact, flush eyes promptly with plenty of water for at least 15 minutes and call a physician. Flush exposed skin with water (not hot) or use other means to warm skin slowly.

Other hazards
Most halogenated compounds decompose at high temperatures (such as those associated with gas flames or electricity heaters). The chemicals that result under these circumstances always include hydrofluoric acid. If the compound contains chlorine, hydrochloric acid also will be formed and if a source of water (or oxygen) is present, a smaller amount of phosgene.

Fortunately, the halogen acids have a very sharp, stinging effect on the nose and can be detected by odor at concentrations below their toxic level. These acids serve as warning agents that decomposition has occurred. If they are detected, the area should be evacuated until the air has been cleared of decomposition products.

The following guidelines should be followed when working with or around refrigerants:
  • Always read the product label and the product Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS);
  • Always use with adequate ventilation. Most fatal accidents involving refrigerant are due to oxygen deprivation;
  • Never expose refrigerants to flames, sparks or hot surfaces;
  • Never trap liquid refrigerants between valves where there is no pressure relief device. A dirty pressure relief device must be replaced;
  • Use an alcohol spray to clean refrigerant sight glasses that have become coated with ice;
  • When leak testing a system, use nitrogen for increasing the pressure after the refrigerant is recovered. Use a pressure regulator on the nitrogen cylinder to ensure a safe pressure in the system. The low-side test pressure value listed on the data plate should be used as the maximum pressure applied to the system for leak testing;
  • Never use oxygen or compressed air for pressurization—some refrigerants may explode when under pressure and mixed with air; and
  • Physicians: Do not use epinephrine to treat overexposure.

To read more about refrigerant safety or refrigerant usage in general, visit or call (800) 297-5660 to order Refrigerant Usage Certification.
RSES is the leading education, training and certification preparation organization for HVACR professionals. RSES publishes various comprehensive industry training and reference materials in addition to delivering superior educational programs designed to benefit HVACR professionals at every stage of their careers through instructor-led training courses, online training for HVAC, educational seminars, interactive CD and DVD products, industry-related reference manuals, and helpful technical content through Service Application Manual chapters, the RSES Journal, the RSES Journal archives and feature articles, as well as web-exclusive features.

Beginning with basic theory and extending to complex troubleshooting, training courses covering refrigeration and air conditioning, heating, electricity, controls, heat pumps and safety may be conducted in a classroom environment or though self study. RSES publications may be purchased by schools, contractors, manufacturers or any other industry group wanting to conduct comprehensive training programs. Seminars covering air conditioning troubleshooting, electrical troubleshooting, compressor training, condenser training, refrigerant piping practices, DDC controls, and more are held in various cities across North America.

Select training programs offer Continuing Education Units (CEUs) and NATE Continuing Education Hours (CEHs).

In addition, RSES offers industry certification preparation materials for refrigerant handling (EPA Section 608), R-410A and North American Technician Excellence (NATE) examinations.

RSES’ monthly magazine, RSES Journal, serves HVAC contractors, service technicians, students, operations/maintenance managers, engineers and technicians who work in the residential, light commercial, commercial and institutional markets on air conditioning, warm-air heating, refrigeration, ventilation, electrical, ice machines, chillers, hydronic heating, piping, refrigeration control and energy management, building automation, indoor air quality and duct cleaning, and sheet metal fabrication equipment and/or systems.
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