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Rich Products faces $37,500 in fines tied to ammonia leak at Buffalo plant

Rich Products Corp. was hit with $37,500 in fines stemming from an ammonia leak at its Buffalo plant on May 4, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Thursday.

The leak at the plant on Niagara Street caused no injuries, but prompted firefighters to cordon off several blocks of the West Side neighborhood for about four hours while the gas dissipated. Ammonia was used as a refrigerant at the plant.

Workers noticed a chemical smell and quickly evacuated the affected area, which was within a giant freezer, OSHA inspector Michael Stratton said. The plant made non-dairy dessert toppings and coffee creamer.

"Safety is Rich's No. 1 priority and we take OSHA findings very seriously," said a statement from Duffy Smith, senior vice president of operations.

The amount of gas that leaked was small, and the company's response protected workers and the community from injury, he said.

Said Stratton, "Given another set of circumstances, the outcome could have been very different."

The plant's ammonia alarms weren't functioning, and a hazardous-materials team sent in to find the problem didn't have adequate breathing gear, he said. Two of the three workers wore filter-type respirators instead of a self-contained air tank, although the concentration of the deadly gas wasn't known.

"If the concentration was too high, the ammonia could easily saturate the filter and blow right through it," Stratton said.

Workers found the leak, which was in a refrigerant coil, and the system was shut off, allowing the escaped gas to leak slowly from the plant, he said.

OSHA cited the company for 15 "serious" health and safety violations at the plant, according to agency documents. A serious violation is defined as one carrying a substantial possibility of death or injury.

Rich Products has already addressed the violations cited by OSHA, Smith's statement said. In addition, the company has stopped making frozen products at the plant, and is removing the freezers there. About half the ammonia has been removed and sent to a recycler, the statement said.

Companies may protest citations in conference with local officials or appeal them to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, OSHA said.

Ammonia is a common refrigerant in high-capacity freezers used by dairies, ice cream plants and other food processors, Stratton said.

Highly caustic, ammonia is considered a high health hazard by OSHA because of its corrosive effects on eyes, skin and lungs. Concentrations of more than 330 parts per million are life-threatening, the agency says.

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com

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