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Safety board calls for an OSHA standard on liquid nitrogen


Lack of warning signs for the presence of liquid nitrogen and an asphyxiation hazard at the entrance to the freezer room from the loading dock (left) and clean room (right). (Credit: CSB and Messer) 

Washington — Chemical facilities that handle hazardous gases or cryogenic asphyxiants such as liquid nitrogen should maintain atmospheric monitoring and alarm systems and educate workers on hazards.

The recommendations are part of a recently released final report from the Chemical Safety Board on a fatal January 2021 liquid nitrogen release at the Foundation Food Group Inc. poultry processing plant in Gainesville, GA.

Six workers died and four others sustained serious injuries after a freezer malfunctioned and released colorless, odorless liquid nitrogen into the air, displacing the oxygen in the room.

Investigators found that multiple workers who entered the freezer room after their shift started to check on co-workers had never received training on the fatal effects of nitrogen exposure. The facility also lacked air monitoring and alarm devices that might have cautioned workers against entering the room.

“Workers were not aware of the deadly consequences of a liquid nitrogen release – ultimately, trying to save their colleagues led to them sacrificing their own lives,” CSB investigator-in-charge Drew Sahli said in a press release. “This is a known hazard, and better training and communication could have prevented such a tragedy.”

The report offers multiple safety lessons, including:

  • Processes and equipment that involve hazardous materials should be designed robustly enough that the failure of a single component cannot result in a catastrophic incident.
  • Designating competent and resourced staff with responsibility over specific safety programs is key to ensuring effective process safety. Management must be knowledgeable and involved in each of these safety programs to provide effective oversight.
  • Organizations must be cognizant of the hazards posed by the chemicals they handle and should implement effective process safety management systems to control process safety risks.

Further, CSB calls on OSHA to issue a national standard addressing hazards related to the storage, use, and/or handling of liquid nitrogen and other cryogenic asphyxiants. CSB also recommends OSHA include liquid nitrogen in its Regional Emphasis Programs for poultry processing and food manufacturing.

“CSB’s recommendations are important for preventing incidents involving liquid nitrogen and lessening their severity if they do occur,” CSB Chair Steve Owens said in the release. “The hazards of liquid nitrogen must be clearly communicated to workers, and the safety management systems for operations that use liquid nitrogen must be improved.”

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