I’m sure we have all heard of the devastating event regarding the liquid nitrogen leak at a Georgia poultry plant this week so it is important we talk about what this hazardous substance is and the effects it can have on people if something goes wrong. If you are someone who works around liquid nitrogen regularly, are you aware of the safety precautions to take working around this hazardous material or what how dangerous liquid nitrogen could really be?
Nitrogen is a naturally occurring element needed for both growth and reproduction in plants and animals. It is also found in the air we breathe. When it is substantially cooled, it can become liquid. Liquid nitrogen is about 320.4 degrees below freezing and is so cold that it will freeze anything it comes into contact with. Because it is so cold, liquid nitrogen immediately boils when it touches anything room temperature, which is what causes the cloudy smoke seen in fancy cocktails.
Poultry plants often rely on refrigeration systems that can include liquid nitrogen so freeze or transport food products but it can also be used for a number of other things such as cryopreservation of biological samples, such as sperm, eggs, and animal genetic samples, cryotherapy to remove skin abnormalities or used as a coolant for superconductors, vacuum pumps, and other materials and equipment. Liquid nitrogen can vaporize into an odorless gas capable of displacing oxygen when leaked into the air. When this happens, oxygen levels can drop and can lead to headaches, lightheadedness, vomiting and even the loss of consciousness. According to the Food and Drug Administration, liquid nitrogen is non-toxic but can cause severe damage to skin and internal organs if mishandled. Between 2012 and 2020, 14 people have died from asphyxiation linked to nitrogen in 12 separate workplace accidents, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Liquid nitrogen can be extremely deadly if mishandled which is why is it so important to know how to take the proper safety precautions for all hazardous materials in your workplace. If you work around this hazardous materials you should consider the following precautions:
- Liquid nitrogen is cold enough to cause severe frostbite on contact with living tissue so it is important to wear proper safety gear when handling liquid nitrogen to prevent contact or inhalation of the extremely cold vapor.
- Because it boils so rapidly, the phase transition from liquid to gas can generate a lot of pressure very quickly. Do not enclose liquid nitrogen in a sealed container, as this may result in it bursting or an explosion.
- Adding large quantities of nitrogen to the air reduces the relative amount of oxygen, which may result in an asphyxiation risk. Cold nitrogen gas is heavier than air, so the risk is greater closer to the ground. Use liquid nitrogen in a well-ventilated area.
- Liquid nitrogen containers may accumulate oxygen that is condensed from the air. As the nitrogen evaporates, there’s a risk of violent oxidation of organic matter.
Your company should have Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) in your workplace for all hazardous materials that you work around that will cover everything from the dangers they pose, how to work safely around them, what to do it you have been exposed to the hazmat, how to properly store and handle them and what to do in an emergency situation. Our thoughts and prayers go out to those affected in the Georgia poultry plant this week.