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Major hazard risks in cold chain installations

Claude Thackwray of MHR (Major Hazard Risk) Consultants gave a presentation at the GCCA Africa Risk & Insurance seminar in Johannesburg earlier this year.The following article is derived from his presentation, edited by Eamonn Ryan

Major hazard risk assessments play a crucial role in ensuring the safety and security of hazardous installations in the cold chain. While some clients may perceive these assessments as costly and unnecessary, it is essential to recognise the potential dangers associated with the storage and processing of hazardous substances, particularly ammonia in the case of refrigerants. This presentation aims to shed light on the importance of risk assessments in the cold chain and provide an overview of relevant legislation, regulations, and guidelines.

Lizelle van der Berg, director, GCCA Africa. Image supplied by Eamonn Ryam | Cold Link Africa
Lizelle van der Berg, director, GCCA Africa. Image supplied by Eamonn Ryam | Cold Link Africa


Within hazardous industries, there are two primary types of installations: storage facilities and processing plants. Storage facilities involve contracts with suppliers who store and deliver substances like ammonia. These installations pose a significant risk of explosions and other catastrophic events. On the other hand, processing plants, with their complex operations, involvement of multiple individuals, and movement of equipment and materials, are more prone to incidents.


Definition: ‘Acts’ are pieces of statutory legislation that have been passed by Parliament which means that they are laws. An example is the Occupational Health & Safety Act 85 of 1993 (OSH). To ensure the safety of workers and the public, legislative frameworks govern major hazard risk assessments. The OSH Act serves as the foundation for legal prosecution. Additionally, various departments issue regulations that provide detailed guidelines based on this Act. Major hazard regulations, promulgated by the Department of Employment and Labour (DEL), offer comprehensive instructions specific to hazardous installations. These regulations are further complemented by guidance notes, publications, and codes of practice, which provide industry best practices and guidelines for complying with the regulations.

Definition: Regulations are supplementary to acts. They link to existing acts, and they are designed to aid a person to apply the principles of the primary act. Essentially, they are formal guidelines. An example is the Major Hazard Installation Regulations. The most recent code for Major Hazard Risk Assessments (MHRA) was issued in 2018. It serves as the standard for preparing assessment reports, ensuring consistency and adherence to regulations. Departments also offer explanatory notes that assist in the interpretation of regulatory provisions. Compliance with these regulations is crucial, as non-compliance may lead to prosecution under legislation such as the OHS Act. Regulations evolve over time to address emerging challenges and improve safety standards. Recently published MHRA regulations reflect ongoing efforts to refine the guidelines. However, implementing new regulations can be complex, and it may take several years for comprehensive explanatory notes to be issued. Despite these challenges, it is essential for industries to stay informed and adapt to the changing landscape of major hazard risk assessments.


Risk assessment and emergency planning go hand in hand when it comes to major hazard management. Standards defined by the OSH Act provide clarity on what constitutes a major incident. It involves the storage of a prescribed quantity of substances that have the potential to cause catastrophic consequences. On 31 January 2023, the Minister of Employment and Labour published new Major Hazard Installation Regulations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993 (OHSA). These latest MHRA regulations, introduced in January of this year, emphasise the contractual obligations of facilities to ensure adequate safety measures. The risk assessment requirements vary depending on the level of hazard, with higher risk installations necessitating more substantial investments.

What is new? Quantities of dangerous goods are now listed in three tiers:

  • Low hazard: 15 tons
  • Medium hazard: 50 tons
  • High hazard: 200 tons

Some considerations are:

  • Most accidents in the ammonia industry occur at refrigeration plants
  • Most refrigeration plants fall below the low hazard quantity
  • Most injuries and deaths happen at refrigeration plants that are below the low hazard quantity
  • Of all types of installations, process plants have more accidents than storage plants because of the operational nature of processing

This raises the question of whether a risk assessment is necessary at a plant with less than five tons of hazardous material? If an employee was seriously injured or killed as the result of a loss of containment of a dangerous substance on your site, it means that you had a quantity or handled it an a such a way that it caused a ‘major incident’.


In 2001, explanatory notes were introduced to guide risk assessors in determining catastrophic proportions. However, there are differences of opinion regarding the definition. While some may consider any potential loss of life or significant damage to a building as catastrophic, the DEL specifically highlights the involvement of a member of the public as a key criterion. This involvement can include scenarios where prompt actions, such as evacuating people, are necessary. Risk assessments play a vital role in determining when and how to carry out such measures, ensuring public safety.

The legislation surrounding major hazard risk assessments evolves to address emerging challenges. The fee structure introduced by the DEL in the new legislation requires registration and categorisation of facilities into low, medium, and high-risk classifications. While the exact definition of catastrophic incidents remains unchanged, discussions are ongoing regarding the inclusion of additional industries. An upcoming meeting will shed light on these deliberations and their impact on risk assessments.

The crowd attending the GCCA Africa Risk & Insurance seminar in Johannesburg earlier this year. Image supplied by Eamonn Ryam | Cold Link Africa
The crowd attending the GCCA Africa Risk & Insurance seminar in Johannesburg earlier this year. Image supplied by Eamonn Ryam | Cold Link Africa


The calculation of risk assessments varies depending on the type of installation. In storage facilities, the water capacity of tanks is a crucial factor, and only 80% of this capacity is considered valid if the product is present. Processing plants, on the other hand, may require alternative methods, such as certification by qualified professionals, to determine the quantity of hazardous substances accurately. Compliance with legislation is essential in quantifying risks, taking into account vessel sizes, pipeline capacities, and overall plant capabilities.

Public safety is a paramount concern in major hazard risk assessments. Even smaller-scale installations in popular areas can have significant consequences if a catastrophic leak occurs. For example, at the waterfront in Cape Town, where several small plants exist, a leak could result in the evacuation of a densely populated area, posing substantial challenges and costs. Insurance companies, recognising the risks involved, often require risk assessments to assess the potential hazards and determine appropriate coverage.

When designing emergency plans, it is essential to involve various stakeholders, including city councils, fire departments, and health departments. This collaboration ensures that accurate information is incorporated into the emergency plans, going beyond mere evacuation points. To keep people safe and maintain business continuity, a comprehensive understanding of risks and hazards is required. Obtaining an understanding of the potential risks through a Major Hazard Installation (MHI) assessment is crucial for accurately designing emergency plans.


For medium and high-risk installations in the cold chain, safety reports become necessary. These reports encompass on-site risks as well as off-site risks. While small-scale installations primarily focus on on-site risks that can be managed internally, medium and high- risk installations involve significant off-site considerations. Emergency plans and co-ordination with local authorities, including fire departments and emergency services, become essential to address the potential impacts beyond the installation premises. These efforts ensure a comprehensive approach to risk management.

In many cases, regulatory bodies require approval processes for various installations, including restaurants using gas cylinders or the installation of large water tanks at residential properties. Compliance with safety standards and regulations is vital to protect individuals and the surrounding environment. Risk assessments play a pivotal role in these approval processes, providing an accurate evaluation of potential hazards and allowing authorities such as fire departments to review and assess the proposed plans. Risk assessments help identify potential risks and provide crucial information for ensuring compliance with safety regulations.


Cooling plants, often integrated into buildings and structures, can pose significant risks if not properly assessed and planned. Some may argue that if a cooling plant does not contain hazardous machinery, there is no need for approval. However, this overlooks the importance of risk assessment in identifying potential risks beyond the machinery itself. Fire departments and other relevant authorities can evaluate the risks associated with cooling plants, including the potential for fire, explosion, or other hazards. Risk assessments provide a comprehensive understanding of all risks involved and enable necessary precautions and mitigation strategies.

In conclusion, major hazard risk assessments are essential in the cold chain industry to ensure the design of effective emergency plans and compliance with safety regulations. Collaboration with various stakeholders, including city councils, fire departments, and health departments, provides accurate information for comprehensive emergency planning. Medium and high- risk installations require safety reports that encompass both on-site and off-site risks. Risk assessments also play a crucial role in obtaining necessary approvals for installations, including those involving gas cylinders or large water tanks. By conducting thorough risk assessments and integrating their findings into emergency plans, stakeholders can effectively mitigate risks and ensure the safety of all involved in the cold chain industry.