Safety alert issued after worker suffers cryogenic burns

Wednesday, 06 July, 2022

Safety alert issued after worker suffers cryogenic burns

A young worker at a heavy engineering maintenance facility has suffered serious cryogenic burns after dunking his hands in liquid nitrogen whilst attempting to shrink a brass bush to put into an excavator boom arm. Cryogenic substances, such as liquid nitrogen, are used to produce very low temperatures. Most cryogenic substances are odourless, colourless and tasteless. They have a liquid state when kept at very low temperatures, create a visible fog when exposed to air and turn to gas at room temperature. Cryogenic substances can displace oxygen levels from the environment upon vaporisation; if stored in confined areas or rooms without ventilation, a leak could result in unsafe oxygen levels. Due to the very low temperatures of these substances, direct contact with the skin can cause severe frostbite permanent tissue damage similar to burns.

Taking steps to manage risks is a condition of doing business in Queensland. If an incident occurs, persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) will need to show the regulator that they have used an effective risk management process. This responsibility is covered by the primary duty of care in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011. PCBUs can use the hierarchy of controls to help decide how to eliminate and reduce the risks in their place of work. The hierarchy of controls ranks types of control methods from the highest level of protection and reliability to the lowest. PCBUs must work through the hierarchy of controls when managing risks, with the aim of eliminating the hazard, which is the most effective control.

The Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 includes a number of duties for a PCBU in order to manage the risks to health and safety associated with using, handling and storing hazardous chemicals at a workplace. Specific sections of the WHS Regulation require the PCBU to identify any risk of a physical or chemical reaction in relation to hazardous chemicals used, handled, generated or stored at a workplace. Upon considering the risks involved with the handling, use or storage of cryogenic substances such as liquid nitrogen, an assessment of the chemical hazards, task hazards or nature of work and the work environment is required. This includes reviewing the vessel/cylinder labels, placards and Safety Data Sheets (SDS) to assess the information provided on the safe storage, handling and use of the cryogenic substance; deciding whether the risks in the workplace are adequately controlled with existing control measures; and implementing additional control measures to address any identified gaps.

The SDS assists this assessment by providing critical information about hazardous chemicals, including health and physical hazards, safe handling and storage procedures, situations that may generate hazardous chemicals, emergency procedures, disposal considerations and personal protective equipment (PPE). Effective controls for cryogenic substance risks often comprise a combination of controls. These include using tongs to withdraw objects immersed in a cryogenic liquid, only using in a well-ventilated area, regularly checking containers and pressure relief valves for signs of wear and wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, including safety glasses, a full face shield and cryogenically rated, loose-fittings gloves that can be quickly removed (cryogenic gloves are for indirect or splash protection only, they are not designed to protect against immersion into cryogenic liquids).

Administrative controls should only be considered when other higher order control measures are not practicable or are to support other control measures. This could include, but is not limited to, obtaining the current SDS from the manufacturer, importer or supplier of liquid nitrogen and making the SDS readily available to workers. The administrative controls also include the development of policies and safe work procedures for the use, handling, storage, clean-up and disposal of liquid nitrogen, and the provision of easy-to-understand information, training and instruction to workers, including how to properly use and wear PPE and the storage and maintenance of PPE. The control measures put in place should be reviewed regularly to ensure they are effective.

Employers are also advised to have first aid arrangements and plans in place to deal with workplace emergencies. Employers must take into account the nature of work and workplace hazards, including the type of hazardous chemicals and how they are being used, handled and stored. Employers must also ensure that the work environment and the way young employees do their job is safe and healthy, regardless of the type and terms of their employment. Employers of young workers should understand their risk profile, ensure a safe and healthy workplace, provide information, training, instruction and supervision, and develop a positive workplace culture.

Before a young person begins work, a PCBU should identify the gaps in the worker’s knowledge and assess their ability to work safely (competency should also be tested); employers should also not accept a young worker’s assurance that he or she is experienced and competent. It is important for young workers to actively participate in the way work health and safety is managed. This means taking induction and training seriously, using the risk management process for work tasks and asking for help before starting a task they’re not familiar with or comfortable carrying out.

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