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Controlling Liquid Nitrogen Burns in the Microscopy Laboratory

When they occur, treat them as if they were frostbite



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For every case of liquid nitrogen burn in a laboratory setting, there are literally thousands of cases of frostbite. Hence, there is consider experience from the treatment of frostbite, primarily from outdoor exposure to cold weather and we will present some of the current thinking about treatment.

There are several degrees of frostbite depending on how deep the freezing damage occurs. In the typical laboratory setting, and in particular, the typical microscopy laboratory setting, most exposures are short duration, such as a splash on the arm or hand. Not only does the liquid nitrogen evaporate quickly, but a gas layer forms at the skin surface, forming an almost protective film against further damage. In such cases, the evaporation is fast enough that the result is a slight reddening of the skin, not unlike that from a typical sun burn. Typically, blistering does not occur from such fleeting exposures.

And if blistering does indeed occur, then the exposure would have been beyond that of simple reddening and medical attention should be sought immediately.

A much more severe case would be that where a limb (e.g. fingers) were actually submerged into liquid nitrogen and this would of course almost certainly lead to much more profound damage. In this instance, it is important to keep the frozen appendage still and when hands and fingers are involved, they can be warmed by placing in warm water slightly higher than body temperature (about 102 F is recommended), or even placing the affected fingers under the arm. For first aid in such an instance, wrap the damaged limbs in a sterile dry gauze, there is almost certainly going to be blistering but be careful to not break open the blisters and seem medical attention at once.

Note: It is for this reason that open types of shoes should never be warn when working with liquid nitrogen. Also, canvas shoes should never be worn either because the liquid nitrogen can permeate the canvas and result in an even more severe burn of the feet than if open shoes were being worn!

To wear gloves or to not wear gloves:
Common sense would dictate that "cryo" gloves we warn at all times when handling liquid nitrogen. However, some have made the case that liquid nitrogen (or "cryo") gloves are cumbersome, and make handling even more difficult, possibly leading to an actually less safe situation, which could even increase the chances of some kind of a spill and exposure. Also, if one accidentally gets some liquid nitrogen down into the gloves, severe burn could result whereas if the hand was unprotected, there would be only mild burn, some reddening, the effects of which would vanish in a few days.

We believe that the discussion about wearing gloves is a lot like the discussion about seat belts in automobiles. I guess we can all come up with hypothetical or even real scenarios where one would have had lesser injuries had they not been wearing seatbelts. But statistics have shown without a doubt that the use of seat belts over all increased ones safety when driving.

We believe that the question about the use of gloves would have a similar discussion. One can come up with scenarios where one would in fact be "safer" without gloves than with gloves, but overall, we believe one is going to be safer using gloves.


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