Entering and working in refrigerated holds Is it safe?

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Commercial fishing vessels and some other vessels have refrigerated holds which may be set to anywhere from 0°C to 3°C on average. Freezer holds can go from -2°C to -60°C or even lower in some cases.

So how safe is it to work in these holds?

Entering and working in refrigerated holds Is it safe?

If you follow a series of proven steps it’s very safe and crew have been doing it for years but…there are a few hazards that need to be monitored.

If you’re working in a refrigerated hold where the temperature is 0°C to 3°C on average there is no real need for all the PPE unless you’re going to be there for an extended period.

Working in a freezer hold is a whole different world where temperatures from -2°C to -60°C or even lower are maintained PPE is essential.

How does your body respond to the cold?

While this newsletter is about refrigerated holds this part is also relevant to being in the water!

When the body is exposed to the cold, it responds in two way to reduce heat loss:

  1. By constricting the blood vessels in the skin and extremities (fingers and toes) to keep your core as warm as possible: and
  2. By increasing the metabolic heat product rate, either by physical work you are doing, or by shivering. Shivering is an independent way of increasing your heat production through as it increases oxygen consumption and reduces your effectiveness.

As your body responds in these ways, it is using more energy than it would in ambient temperatures. Hence, it is burning food and drink faster and will tire faster.

The serious risks of working in cold environments

If you stay in cold environments for extended periods of time and/or are not wearing suitable protective clothing, your body may be at risk of more serious implications. These can include:

  • Frostbite. This is where the fluids in the body tissues actually freeze, causing permanent damage to the skin. Body parts at the most risk to this are the extremities; fingers, toes, the nose and the ear lobes.

  • Hypothermia. This is where your body temperature decreases significantly (below 35°C) and can ultimately (and quickly) lead to death. Early symptoms include confused though processes, loss of general motor control, slurred speech, aggressive shivering and a perception the victim feels hot. Hypothermia is rare in cold storage however and can be avoided through protective clothing that is adequate, and importantly, not damp or wet.
  • Long term conditions. Conditions such as arthritis, rheumatism and bronchitis are commonly associated with the cold, and may only come out years after working in the cold. Muscle and tissue damage can also occur.

Other factors for cold storage facilities

Cold Stores and Warehouses often have poor ventilation, which presents a hazard. Any gases or contaminants, such as LPG or fumes from forklifts, will not easily escape and could be dangerous for those working in the room.

Another thing to consider is ammonia is often used for refrigeration which can be deadly, should there be a leak on site. If you are worried about any irritating smells inside the cold store you should report them quickly to your supervisor.

Another area to focus on is door openings between different areas. Because of the changes in temperatures or conditions, ice/water/condensation can build up in these areas, making them extremely slippery and dangerous.

Back to the boats!

It’s critical that if you have cold storage on your vessel that you have a procedure to ensure the safety of your crew when entering and working in the refrigerated hold.

Here’s a few key point to observe:

  • Always notify someone that you are about to enter the refrigerated hold
  • Ensure you have another crew member in attendance while you are in the hold
  • Prior to entry ensure you have the appropriate PPE
  • Test the space prior to entering if you have the appropriate gas meter
  • Be aware of refrigeration gas, remember it colourless, odourless and can kill you. While some  newer gases are less potent than the older ones still remain alert at all times
  • While working in the refrigerated hold the hatch must be left open
  • Do not enter a refrigerated hold if you see a crew member fall down due to refrigeration gas poisoning

Shorlink’s Recommendation

Our top recommendation is if you have refrigeration onboard it’s wise to carry an Emergency Life Support Apparatus (ELSA). By donning the ELSA, you have 15 minutes (or other time based on the brand) which allows you to enter the hold to rescue a crew member safely.


If you have refrigeration onboard remember it’s not just the refrigerated compartment that presents a potential problem. It may be the engine room or other area where the refrigeration equipment is located. So, at all times remain aware of potential refrigeration gas leaks.