Recent Industrial Accident Demonstrates the Dangers of Liquid Nitrogen
The Dangers of Liquid Nitrogen
Liquid nitrogen ( LN2 ) is commonly used as a coolant in a variety of industries. It is a colorless, low viscosity liquid that freezes rapidly and maintains temperatures well below the freezing point of water. These qualities make it extremely valuable in medical research, chemical labs, industrial facilities, restaurants, and food storage facilities.
Because liquid nitrogen reaches a freezing point of −346° Fahrenheit very quickly, it makes an excellent coolant material. However, it poses dangers in certain conditions. When liquid nitrogen comes in contact with a warmer environment or object, it can convert to nitrogen gas bubbles at boiling temperatures. This is known as the Leidenfrost effect, a condition that occurs when any liquid comes in contact with an object or surface that’s significantly hotter than its boiling point. When this extreme condition arises, anyone working with the liquid nitrogen or in the near vicinity can suffer catastrophic injuries.
Due to the liquid-to-gas expansion ratio of nitrogen, liquid nitrogen can generate tremendous force if it vaporizes in an enclosed space. A workers comp lawyer often sees workplace burn injuries from liquid nitrogen explosions, as well as severe cold burn injuries in workers who handle liquid nitrogen without proper safety protections. When liquid nitrogen starts to evaporate, it reduces the amount of oxygen in the air. In confined spaces, liquid nitrogen can act as an asphyxiant causing a quick, but painful death.
- In 1997, the first case of liquid nitrogen ingestion was recorded when a physics student demonstrating the Leidenfrost effect accidentally swallowed a small amount. As a result, the student suffered near-fatal injuries.
- In 2012, a young English woman ingested a cocktail made with liquid nitrogen, a popular trend that adds fizz and smoke effects to drinks. The woman had to have her entire stomach removed after suffering extensive internal damages.
- In 2017, a Georgia sheriff’s deputy died after inhaling liquid nitrogen while attempting to rescue an employee at a sperm bank where liquid nitrogen was used as a refrigerant.
- In 2021 – Six people died and a dozen more were injured at a Gainesville poultry plant where liquid nitrogen created a hazmat situation when a line carrying liquid nitrogen ruptured.
Workplace Safety Precautions
Since liquid nitrogen is so volatile, workplace safety precautions are essential for workers who handle it or are around it in a work environment. Although liquid nitrogen is non-toxic, it can cause severe burn injuries to the skin, as well as respiratory problems and internal damage to organs. Human tissues can freeze if liquid nitrogen is ingested. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings to retailers and consumers about serious injuries from consuming foods and drinks containing liquid nitrogen that’s been added immediately before consumption.
Environmental regulations impose strict safety standards for working around liquid nitrogen. It’s listed as a non-toxic substance that can cause severe injuries and/or death due to the following hazardous conditions:
Liquid nitrogen vapors can quickly freeze eye fluid and skin tissue, resulting in permanent eye damage, frostbite, and cold burns, even with brief exposure. If accidentally ingested, freezing can cause severe injuries to internal organs. Restaurant workers often file injury claims with a workers comp lawyer due to cold burns and frostbite caused by liquid nitrogen used in freezers and cold storage.
If liquid nitrogen is transported, oxygen in the air surrounding the containment system can dissolve and create an oxygen-enriched environment. Since the boiling point of nitrogen is lower than the boiling point of oxygen, sudden combustion can occur from flammable materials in the vicinity. To prevent fire hazards, liquid nitrogen must be kept clear of combustible materials.
Explosions from Pressure Buildup
Cryogenic liquids like liquid nitrogen should never be contained in a closed work environment without pressure relief devices and adequate ventilation. Without these safety measures to prevent pressure buildup, cryogen evaporation and cause a deadly explosion. Workers employed in industrial warehouses and underground mines face high risks of deadly injuries from explosions. When a worker is killed on the job, a workers comp lawyer can file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the victim’s family members.
When liquid nitrogen vaporizes, it expands 695 times in volume with no warning signals detectable by color or odor. If oxygen levels drop below 19.5%, there is a risk of oxygen deficiency that may result in loss of consciousness and/or death. To prevent asphyxiation hazards, workplaces that use or store liquid nitrogen must be well ventilated at all times.
To protect workers, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) enforces safety regulations for handling and working around liquid nitrogen. In addition to requiring safety gloves, glasses, and equipment, OHSA offers training classes for employers who use and/or store liquid nitrogen in their workplace. Employers who violate OHSA safety regulations face steep fines and possible business closure.