Dry ice and liquid nitrogen are both common cooling agents used in food and beverage transport — but they can pose potentially deadly health risks to workers.
A new hazard alert from the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries warns about the dangers of the substances when exposed to air. Suffocation isn’t the first hazard most think of when it comes to dry ice and liquid nitrogen. But that’s precisely what makes it so dangerous.
When exposed to air, dry ice becomes carbon dioxide and liquid nitrogen turns into nitrogen dioxide. These gases displace oxygen in the air, which can then lead to suffocation. Additionally, handling these cooling agents without proper protection can cause ice burns and permanent frostbite damage to skin and eyes.
If stored in a non-ventilated container, these substances can even cause explosions.
How to Protect Workers From Dry Ice & Liquid Nitrogen
If your workers regularly come into contact with either dry ice or liquid nitrogen, it’s important to create an effective employee training program as well as create a safety plan for workers to follow.
Here are several effective ways to protect workers:
- Thoroughly examine the workplace and transport systems to determine the potential risks workers may face when storing and handling dry ice or liquid nitrogen.
- Ensure there’s adequate ventilation wherever these products are used or stored, including in transport vehicles.
- Establish a written safety procedure that outlines how to work with these substances. This should include protocols for potential emergency situations, such as leaks or spills.
- Install and maintain alarms that can detect low oxygen levels. You can also provide workers with oxygen-level monitors.
- Never store these substances in sealed containers or poorly ventilated vehicles and spaces.
OSHA Recommended Protective Equipment
- For respiratory protection: SCBA in oxygen deficient atmospheres/where CO2 >1.5%. Don’t use air purifying respirators.
- Ventilation: Implement local exhaust at the point sources of vapors from the substances.
- Protective gloves: For use while handling either substance. OSHA recommends impermeable, loose fitting leather gloves.
- Eye Protection: Safety glasses.
Previous Worker Fatalities and Injuries
The hazard alert also listed several examples of worker injuries and deaths due to lack of protection around cryogens:
In Washington, a worker died shortly after being found unconscious inside a freezer truck trailer loaded with tons of meat packed in dry ice. Air testing demonstrated carbon dioxide gas released from the dry ice had likely caused an oxygen-deficient environment inside the trailer.
In a separate incident, a worker entered a walk-in fridge (where 300 pounds of dry ice had been placed the day before) and collapsed due to breathing oxygen-deficient air. Fortunately, the worker survived.
Any situation where workers may be breathing in low-oxygen air is highly dangerous. Follow recommended protective measures and make sure your employees are fitted with proper PPE.
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