When a check valve in the pump room of a Massachusetts food plant leaked about nine pounds of anhydrous ammonia last year, the ammonia sensor in the pump room failed to sound an alarm.

"The leak was relatively small but the consequences could have been enormous. Exposure to even as little as 300 parts per million of anhydrous ammonia is immediately dangerous to life and health. An uncontrolled release can be lethal and catastrophic," said Kenneth Shedden, OSHA's area director for Boston and southeastern Massachusetts.

That incident at Reinhart Food Service LLC – to which OSHA was alerted by employees – lead to the discovery of serious deficiencies in the company’s Process Safety Management (PSM) program. PSM covers every aspect of any process in the workplace involving large amounts of highly hazardous chemicals. In this case, the process is the facility's refrigeration system which uses 27,500 pounds of anhydrous ammonia.

The deficiencies included:

  • Inadequate procedures for inspecting, testing and replacing valves and ammonia sensors consistent with the manufacturer's recommended safety procedures.
  • Not ensuring that ammonia sensor alarms worked properly.
  • An inadequate emergency response plan.
  • Not ensuring that employees who responded with and provide support to hazardous materials technicians demonstrated competency.
  • Not taking adequate precautions to identify responders' maximum exposure limits to ammonia.

OSHA's inspection also identified two hazards similar to those cited during earlier inspections of Reinhart's New Bedford and Taunton facilities: unsecured and inadequately anchored large steel commercial storage racks that could have fallen and struck or crushed employees and unclosed openings on electrical cabinets and boxes.

As a result of its findings, OSHA cited Reinhart Food Service on April 20, 2016, for six serious and two repeated violations of workplace health standards. The company faces a total of $72,000 in proposed penalties.

Founded in 1972, in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Reinhart Food Service is is the fourth largest foodservice distributor in the U.S., serving independent restaurants, delis, sporting venues, schools, nursing homes, hospitals, the military and chain accounts. Based in Rosemont, Illinois, the company operates 29 distribution centers nationwide, and a USDA-inspected fresh meat processing facility.