HPAC Magazine
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Ethanol Handling: A Health & Safety Perspective

This follow up article to Part 1 in HPAC April 2012 discusses operator responsibility.


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May 1, 2012 by Marissa Cutts

Figure 1
Figure 1

As operators, there are some very important things you should know about working with ethanol blends. Some of you may have many years of experience with these products and do things because you were trained to, but do not understand why. Others may just be starting out. Whether you are new to handling Ethanol blends or an old hand at it, a review of practices can only serve to make you work safer.

What are Ethanol blends? Ethanol blends are the liquids used in geothermal systems (often called loop juice). Although this liquid is safe in a closed loop, it can be dangerous to work with if best practices are not followed. Best practices have been established by the Canadian GeoExchange Coalition (CGC) and the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada (HRAI) with the input of operators and manufacturers.

There are some easy steps you can follow to make sure you are safe:

1. Know the risk of the product you are working with.

2. Follow the safety procedures and rules.

3. Know what to do if things go wrong.

Ethanol blends are flammable and can ignite from either a direct spark or from static electricity (energy passed from one object to another).

Note: This product remains flammable even after diluted with water.

1. Do not smoke when working with, or around others working with ethanol blends.

2. Do not use ethanol blends around people who are welding or working with open flames.

3. Work lights need to be LED and not incandescent bulbs (most reported incidents of ethanol fires are from an incandescent bulb breaking in spilt ethanol).

4. Always have a fire extinguisher close at hand.

When transferring ethanol from one container to another, no matter what the strength they are some basic rules:

1. Always work outside so there is not an accumulation of fumes (these can be flammable and ignite). Ethanol vapours are heavier than air and will accumulate in a basement or other area with inadequate ventilation.

2. Only use approved pumps for transferring product.

3. Use good bonding and grounding practices when transferring product.

4. Always have a fire extinguisher close at hand.

5. Do not smoke when working with, or around others working with ethanol blends.

To transfer product you need to first ground the container you are pouring from (clamp from container to ground rod) and then bond (attach the receiving container to the container you are pouring from). This will prevent the buildup of dangerous static electricity to transfer to the product. Always pour slowly and use approved hand pumps for flammable liquids. All containers should be securely closed when not in use (see Figure 1). 

The container you are taking the product from and the container you are putting the product into both need to have proper WHMIS labels (easy to spot by the hash mark border). This way you know what is in the container you are taking from, and the next person knows what is in the container you filled.

Skin and eye contact with ethanol, both over a long period of time or in a single large occurrence can cause irritation. Always protect yourself by wearing long sleeves and long pants (yes, even when it is hot outside). You also need to wear chemical resistant gloves and splash goggles that will protect your eyes. Do not forget your steel toed boots as dropping heavy equipment, including pails and drums can occur.

Although ethanol is alcohol based, this product is not consumable–do not drink it! Most reported cases of ingestion are not accidental. Ethanol blends contain additives that are included to make it unpleasant to consume.

Your company will have detailed emergency procedures, or the client may have rules for the site that you are working at. In addition to these, here are some things that will help you be prepared if something were to happen:

1. Know where you are working, so if you need to call emergency services you can give them the job site address.

2. Know where there is a supply of fresh water, that way if you get product on your skin or in your eyes, you can get to water quickly and wash it off.

3. Have a fire extinguisher close at hand when you are working with a blend (and know how to use it safely).

Without going into too much detail, here are some other areas you need to be aware of and can discuss with your employer:

1. Location of MSDS for the chemicals you work with.

2. How to report hazards and damaged equipment.

3. If you have to transport ethanol blends, do you need TDG training?

The most important thing you can do as an operator is to follow the procedures as you have been trained and observe all safety rules. Every company has rules. Most were put into place after an incident as a method of preventing it from happening again, some were put into place to meet legal requirements, but none are just arbitrary. By understanding this and knowing the whys behind the rules, you will be able to consciously choose to work safer. <>

Marissa Cutts is the administrative manager at Anchem Sales and is responsible for Regulatory Compliance and Health & Safety. She has delivered ethanol handling training to over 200 operators from across Canada. She was a member of the CGC HRAI joint committee that developed the “Standard Operating Procedure for Handling Ethanol.”


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