Controlling Liquid Nitrogen Burns in the Microscopy Laboratory
When they occur, treat them as if they were frostbite
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
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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