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Young worker suffers cryogenic burns

A young worker at a heavy engineering maintenance facility 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.

Investigations are continuing.

Safety issues

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 and permanent tissue damage similar to burns.

Source: SafeWork SA - Dry ice and cryogenics

Ways to manage health and safety

Taking steps to manage risks is a condition of doing business in Queensland. Effective risk management starts with a commitment to health and safety from those who manage the business. If an incident occurs, you'll need to show the regulator that you’ve used an effective risk management process. This responsibility is covered by your primary duty of care in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.

Use the hierarchy of controls to help decide how to eliminate and reduce risks in your place of work. The hierarchy of controls ranks types of control methods from the highest level of protection and reliability to the lowest. It’s a step-by-step approach to eliminating or reducing risks. You must work through the hierarchy of controls when managing risks, with the aim of eliminating the hazard, which is the most effective control.

Possible control measures to prevent similar incidents

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. In addition, 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 consists of but is not limited to:

  • 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, as recommended in the SDS and other reliable sources such as relevant Australian Standards, Codes of Practice, manufacturers guidance and related incident data and reports
  • 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, including first aid
  • disposal considerations
  • personal protective equipment (PPE).

Effective controls for cryogenic substance risks are often made up of a combination of controls. Examples can include but are not limited to:

  • 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 (do not use if any defects are detected)
  • wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) including but not limited to:
    • safety glasses
    • a full face shield
    • cryogenically rated, loose-fitting 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)
    • long-sleeved shirt and pants
    • enclosed or safety shoes.

    Source: SafeWork SA - Dry ice and cryogenics

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 the following examples:

  • obtaining the current SDS from the manufacturer, importer or supplier of liquid nitrogen and make the SDS readily available to workers
  • developing policies and safe work procedures for the use, handling, storage, clean up and disposal of liquid nitrogen (this should include any arrangements in place to deal with emergencies, including evacuation procedures, containing and cleaning up spills and first aid instructions)
  • providing 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 you put in place should be reviewed regularly to ensure they are effective.

First aid

As an employer, you must have first aid arrangements and plans in place to deal with emergencies in your place of work. They 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.

Specific information about first aid requirements for cryogenic substances can be found by referring to your current SDS. AS 1894 - The storage and handling of non-flammable cryogenic and refrigerated liquids also provides information about first aid requirements.

Young workers

Business owners must also ensure 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
  • develop a positive workplace culture.

Consider the tasks you give to new and young workers given their skills, abilities and experience. 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 be tested)
  • NOT accept a young worker's assurance he or she is experienced and competent.

It's 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.

More information

Support for people affected by a serious workplace incident

Have you been affected by a workplace fatality, illness or serious injury? For advice and support: