Shock Gap: Reefer techs can lack the training to stay safe

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Karl Ritzmann of Conestoga College stresses that reefers have evolved, requiring more formalized training.

GUELPH, Ont. — Modern reefer units are clearly more efficient than their belt-driven predecessors. Compressors and electric motors are now combined, and there are no alternators to be found. Noise has dropped; reliability has improved.

Then again, today’s systems could kill a technician who makes a mistake.

While shop personnel have long worked on equipment without the benefit of recognized training, the systems have evolved to generate a heart-stopping 460 volts of power. It’s one of the main reasons that industry representatives are now asking Ontario’s College of Trades’ Motive Power Divisional Board to recognize the training that will help to keep techs safe – and actually identify reefer technicians as a trade.

Reefer-specific training is available through equipment manufacturers and Guelph-based Conestoga College, but that’s all voluntary, says Conestoga instructor Karl Ritzmann of Alltrade Industrial Contractors.

This has created an unusual gap between those who are officially allowed to do the work and those who tend to conduct the repairs. The province’s 310-J truck and trailer technicians or 310-T truck and coach technicians who are legally cleared to work on reefers don’t need to complete the product-specific training. Personnel who complete the training typically lack the formal trade designations.

Only nine of the questions on the exam to earn a 310-J designation refer to refrigeration, observes Jim Pinder, Erb Transport’s corporate fleet director. “So there’s not a high focus on that training.”

“You’ve got this whole element on it where people can get fried,” he says, stressing the legislation, training, and certification have not kept pace with equipment changes. He’s personally seen fried multimeters and burn marks caused by the systems, too. The electrical issues are just one of the considerations, he adds. “I’ve always felt it was very specialized in the amount of Freon. There’s more Freon in a reefer trailer than there is in a lot of homes.”

There are clearly safety lessons to learn, not the least of which is the red color of high-voltage wires. Personal protective apparel in the form of arc-flash gloves and suits are a must. There are unique maintenance challenges as well. Voltages that are too low or high can lead to premature equipment failures, Ritzmann says. “With the mechanical units, if it was off 100 rpm or 200 rpm, it wasn’t a big deal.”

The proposal to update the training requirements has secured widespread support.

“Over the years we have contributed both time and equipment to Conestoga College to help drive some focused training,” said Brad Otsuka, general manager of Reefer Sales and Service, in a written submission to the Ontario College of Trades. “The demand in this industry is high, making it very challenging to keep good individuals without a recognized designation.”

John O’Dwyer, CEO of Thermo King Eastern Canada, offered a letter of his own, referring to previous governments which “lost the political will” after committing to an apprenticeship program for the trade. “The safety hazards alone should immediately justify regulating the trade,” he said.

Ritzmann himself was left to learn the trade through a combination of trial and error, frequent calls to electricians in the family, and voluntary training available through the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.

The proposal now being considered in Ontario would even require experienced workers to take a two-week course before becoming a journeyman. But this would lead to formal recognition that doesn’t exist today.

“You can work in the industry five to 10 years and have nothing under your belt,” Ritzmann says of today’s reality.

  • an original version of this story was updated to reflect the regulatory gap which exists in Ontario.
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John G. Smith is Newcom Media's vice-president - editorial, and the editorial director of its trucking publications -- including Today's Trucking,, and Transport Routier. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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