African explosions send refrigerant warning to the world

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

A spate of fatal accidents linked to faulty repair work on refrigeration and air conditioning equipment in Nigeria should prompt a swift response from the international community, according to the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).

Seven people died and several more were injured in at least five explosions across the city of Abeokuta, according to reports in the Cooling Post. As a result, local officials have banned refrigerant sales and shut down the industry’s service and maintenance operations.

Initial reports suggest the explosions may have been caused by counterfeit or damaged cylinders, contaminated gas and human error; and the state authorities have issued dire warnings to anyone who ignores the ban.

Two engineers were killed while reportedly recharging an air conditioning unit and a young child was among the victims of another incident when a technician was trying to repair a domestic fridge. It is thought that in some cases engineers were putting the wrong gas into the units.

BESA’s head of technical Graeme Fox said these reports were probably “the tip of the iceberg” and called for a concerted response from the “worldwide refrigeration and air conditioning community”.

Fox, who is a former president of the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration European Association (AREA), was instrumental in setting up an international ‘Refrigerant Driving Licence’ scheme for safe refrigerant handling on behalf of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Emerging
When the project launched six years ago, UNEP was growing increasingly concerned about the lack of understanding and training to improve safety in many emerging markets. The idea was that the developed nations would share their expertise with emerging industries to improve safety and professionalism.

“These latest reports from Nigeria emphasise just why this scheme is so important. It was delayed because pandemic travel restrictions prevented the experts from training the trainers in each pilot country,” said Fox, who is also head of technical for the UK’s main F-Gas register REFCOM.

“It now needs to be restarted without delay. Accidents are happening daily, and it is a miracle we have not had more deaths especially with the growth in use of new alternative gases, many of which are flammable.”

The phase-out of HCFCs and ongoing phase down of HFCs has led to the development of alternatives with lower global warming potential – some of which operate at higher pressures and some of which are toxic and/or flammable. Many manufacturers have warned that some are being used as ‘drop-in’ replacements for their equipment when they are not appropriate or safe.

In the UK, we enjoy the support of the long-established refrigerant handling registration scheme REFCOM that has helped to drive up professional standards across our industry. We have a moral duty to share that expertise with other countries – and save lives,” said Fox.

He also warned against complacency in the UK and Europe pointing out that there was a recent near miss here when an engineer vented flammable R290 (propane) in a kitchen served by a grease extract system that could easily have ignited and caused severe damage.

“The growing amount of flammable gas being used by our industry means we must up our game on competence training – something we are focusing on strongly through the BESA Academy. Getting our own contractor base trained up is clearly a priority, but we should be simultaneously sharing our knowledge with our colleagues around the world.

“The demand for refrigeration and air conditioning equipment continues to grow rapidly worldwide and we should be extremely proud of the important role our industry plays in every aspect of modern life. However, greater commercial success also brings greater responsibility,” said Fox.

www.refcom.org.uk

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