Purpose and Applicability
Liquid nitrogen is one of the cryogenic liquids commonly used in research labs. As “cryogenic” means related to very low temperature, it is an extremely cold material. It is liquefied under high pressure condition and can expand to a very large volume of gas. This generic chemical safety guidance describes basic prudent safety practice for handling this chemical in research labs. The principal investigator (PI) or the lab manager is responsible for developing and implementing standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the purchase, storage, and safe handling of this chemical that are specific to the PI’s research.
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The vapor of liquid nitrogen can rapidly freeze skin tissue and eye fluid, resulting in cold burns, frostbite, and permanent eye damage even by brief exposure.
Liquid nitrogen expands 695 times in volume when it vaporizes and has no warning properties such as odor or color. Hence, if sufficient liquid nitrogen is vaporized so as to reduce the oxygen percentage to below 19.5%, there is a risk of oxygen deficiency which may cause unconsciousness. Death may result if oxygen deficiency is extreme. To prevent asphyxiation hazards, handlers have to make sure that the room is well ventilated when using cryogens indoors.
When transferring liquid nitrogen, oxygen in the air surrounding a cryogen containment system can dissolve and create an oxygen-enriched environment. Since the boiling point of nitrogen is lower than oxygen’s, liquid oxygen evaporates slower than nitrogen and may build up to levels which can increase the flammability of materials such as clothing near the system. Equipment containing cryogenic fluids must be kept clear of combustible materials in order to minimize the fire hazard potential. Condensed oxygen in a cold trap may combine with organic material in the trap to create an explosive mixture.
Pressure Buildup and Explosions
Without adequate venting or pressure-relief devices on the containers, enormous pressures can build upon cryogen evaporation. Users must make sure that cryogenic liquids are never contained in a closed system. Use a pressure relief vessel or a venting lid to protect against pressure build-up.
Prudent Safety Practices
- Liquid nitrogen should be handled in well-ventilated areas.
- Handle the liquid slowly to minimize boiling and splashing. Use tongs to withdraw objects immersed in a cryogenic liquid - Boiling and splashing always occur when charging or filling a warm container with cryogenic liquid or when inserting objects into these liquids.
- Do not transport liquid nitrogen in wide-mouthed glass Dewars or Dewars not protected with safety tape.
- Use only approved containers. Impact resistant containers that can withstand the extremely low temperatures should be used. Materials such as carbon steel, plastic and rubber become brittle at these temperatures.
- Only store liquid nitrogen in containers with loose fitting lids (Never seal liquid nitrogen in a container). A tightly sealed container will build up pressure as the liquid boils and may explode after a short time.
- Never touch non-insulated vessels containing cryogenic liquids. Flesh will stick to extremely cold materials. Even nonmetallic materials are dangerous to touch at low temperatures.
- Never tamper or modify safety devices such as cylinder valve or regulator of the tank
- Liquid nitrogen should only be stored in well-ventilated areas (do not store in a confined space).
- Do not store liquid nitrogen for long periods in an uncovered container.
- Cylinders and Dewars should not be filled to more than 80% of capacity, since expansion of gases during warming may cause excessive pressure buildup.
Personal Protective Equipment
A full face shield over safety glasses or chemical splash goggles are recommended during transfer and handling of cryogenic liquids to minimize injuries associated with splash or explosion.
Loose-fitting thermal insulated or leather gloves, long sleeve shirts, and trousers with cuffs should be worn while handling liquid nitrogen. Safety shoes are also recommended while handling containers.
A special note on insulated gloves: Gloves should be loose-fitting so they are able to be quickly removed if cryogenic liquid is spilled on them. Insulated gloves are not made to permit the hands to be put into a cryogenic liquid. They will only provide short-term protection from accidental contact with the liquid.
The PI is responsible for SOPs specific to use of this chemical in their lab. The PI/Lab Manger is responsible for the site specific and hands-on training for the use of this chemical in their lab. Training should be directly documented in the researcher’s lab notebook. On each day of training, both trainer and trainee should sign the lab notebook.
Initially, researchers should perform the procedures with the PI or senior researcher present to observe the safe handling of this chemical. Review the reagent-specific safety data sheets (SDSs). Evaluate the hazards associated with the chemical procedure and experimental setup.
Prudent Practices in the Laboratory – Handling and Disposal of Chemicals. 1995. National Academy Press. (Book)