Commercial refrigeration and freezer spaces are found in just about every restaurant and grocery store. These insulated cold rooms can be as small as 4 feet by 4 feet or as large as a warehouse. Safety specialists advise all employees to familiarize themselves with information on worker safety for walk-in units. Coolers and freezers contain enough hazards to turn a quick trip to a stockroom into a potentially dangerous scenario.
Walk-in units are equipped with safety releases on the doors so that an employee doesn't accidentally get locked inside. Sudden entrapment could lead to hypothermia and possibly death because refrigeration rooms often range from 28 to 40 degrees and freezer spaces can be as low as minus 28 degrees, according to Instawares, a restaurant equipment supplier. Many business managers require workers to take special precautions such as using a buddy system or propping open the entrance whenever someone steps inside. Instawares cautions against relying on a cell phone during an emergency because a mobile phone may not function inside the frigid temperatures. Another smart move is to check the door latch every hour to determine that it opens properly.
Slipping represents another danger inside a walk-in freezer or refrigerator. Condensation turns walkways into icy surfaces that need to be scraped periodically to prevent falls. Some builders avoid using wood in construction because it can absorb moisture creating a slick floor. A worker's best bet is to always wear rubber-soled shoes for extra traction whenever she has to enter a walk-in cooler.
Buildups of mold or carbon dioxide pose added risks to workers. Humidity inside a storage cooler should be set at 60 percent because fungal growths can kick in when moisture levels reach 70 percent, according to University of Minnesota’s Department of Environmental Health & Safety. Condensation seeps into certain materials – like cardboard, wood and plastic foam -- and allows mold to form and spread. Symptoms of mold exposure include coughing, sneezing, sore throat and sinus congestion. In addition, storing dry ice inside a refrigeration unit causes carbon dioxide to accumulate and reach unsafe levels, the American Industrial Hygiene Association warns.
A worker needs to safeguard herself against other perils inside refrigeration areas. Many workers keep coats, hats and gloves hanging near the doorway so that those extra garments are always available for added warmth and protection from the frosty interior. Shelves should never be overloaded with cartons or packages because a storage ledge could collapse under the weight, sending heavy items crashing down on someone. Another mistake among workers is to assume it's OK to step onto a box or a plastic milk crate when reaching for a higher shelf. Instead, supervisors need to provide suitable steps or ladders.
- U.S. Cooler: Walk-In Coolers & Freezers: FAQs About Walk-Ins
- University of Minnesota Department of Environmental Health & Safety: Fungal Growth in Walkin Coolers
- American Industrial Hygiene Association: Don't Store Dry Ice in Walk-in Refrigerators
- Co-Op Agency Inc.: Walk-in Cooler and Freezer Safety