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Cold to the Touch: IANM V6 Story

This story is included in the inaugural 2021 edition of Safety Partners’ publication, “Incidents, Accidents, and Near Misses in Laboratory Research.”

As a scientist you never think your PPE can harm you, right?  But, at a recent Safety Committee meeting at my company I learned about an incident that surprised me!

We regularly work with liquid nitrogen. When we dispense it into dewars, storage containers for cryogenic liquids, we wear special gloves designed to handle liquid nitrogen. You see, when you’re working with an ultra-cold liquid, the last thing you want is a cloth glove that would absorb the stuff and keep it in contact with your skin. At that point, you’d be better off barehanded. These special gloves are made of a non-porous polymer and are extra-long, covering a large portion of our arms. This makes it less likely that liquid nitrogen would drip down the inside of the gloves and cause prolonged contact and frostbite.

When PPE Does Not Fit Properly

Unfortunately for my coworker Eren, “less likely” is not the same thing as “impossible.” One day some liquid nitrogen somehow managed to drip into his glove. He immediately started screaming and trying to rip the glove off, but to no avail. This glove was particularly snug, and in the 5 to 10 seconds it took to snatch it off, the liquid nitrogen had pooled in the fingertips of his gloves. Our colleagues that were there immediately called our EHS team, and before long, he was at the hospital getting treated for frostbite. His injuries looked particularly rough at first, but eventually, he regained the feeling back in his fingertips and made a full recovery.

Right after this, our EHS Director met with the group working in that area to train them with a simple test — the ‘glove throw test.’ She had them put on their liquid nitrogen gloves and then attempt to sling them off in one throw. If they went flying, then the glove is the correct size. If not, they’re too tight and can do more harm than good. Above all else, this incident taught me that PPE can be dangerous if it isn’t fitted properly before use. I’m sure that Eren assumed he was safe because he was wearing the proper protective gear, but that assumption was painfully mistaken.

Another Lesson

When you are working with liquid nitrogen, do not stand over it. As liquid nitrogen evaporates from a liquid to a gas, it expands dramatically. If you’re standing or leaning over it, just one breath can displace the oxygen in your lungs, and you can pass out or worse. Not only is this a suffocation risk, but if you fall unconscious and some part of your body falls into the liquid nitrogen, you’ll almost assuredly suffer extensive frostbite.

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