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University Environmental Health & Safety Departments: How to Handle Compressed Nitrogen and Cryogenics

  • By : PureAire Monitoring Systems
  • Posted on : May 09, 2017
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An explosion at a university research lab in Hawaii last year highlights the dangers of working with compressed gas and the need for safety equipment on campus. Learn the dangers of working with compressed gas, how an oxygen deficiency monitor can help, and campus safety best practices.

Compressed Gas on Campus: Uses and Dangers

Compressed gases including nitrogen, argon, and oxygen are widely used on campuses. These gases have many practical and educational uses across educational institutions. While the level of risk varies across schools, a few examples will illustrate the benefits and the risks of using compressed gas on campus.

Argon gas is critical in the 3D printing process, which campus design, fine arts, applied arts, and sciences may use. Culinary programs may use liquid nitrogen for cooking and freezing, and chemistry labs may use N2 as well. Autoclaves, which sterilize equipment, are regularly used in scientific, medical, and industrial programs. Sports programs and physical therapy training programs may use cryotherapy for injury recovery. Cryotherapy chambers rely on nitrogen to chill the air. The chambers can turn deadly if a nitrogen leak occurs. These gases may be used by facilities personnel, researchers, faculty members or teaching assistants and students assisting with teaching labs. No matter which gas students are working with, they are at risk if the gas is not handled, used, stored, or transported properly.

As these few examples illustrate, there are many opportunities for dangerous leaks, explosions, or fires on campus if safety protocol isn’t followed. Many schools find the gases are not properly stored, which leaves everyone on campus in danger. A recent safety bulletin from the University of Rochester found that liquid nitrogen was stored without an oxygen sensor, poisonous gas was used with a fume hood that did not adequately vent hazardous fumes, gas cylinders were modified using unacceptable materials, and gas tanks were stored without protective chains, stands, and gas caps.

Why Schools and Universities Need an O2 Monitor

As the incident in the Hawaiian university lab illustrates clearly, compressed gases pose significant health risks in the university setting. Whenever safety protocol is not followed, the tanks are at greater risk of tipping, falling over, or leaking.

While the lab worker escaped with her life, many others have not been so lucky. A nitrogen (N2) gas leak causes death via asphyxiation in a matter of minutes.

Nitrogen gas is both odorless and colorless. If gas leaks from a canister, there is no way for passerby to tell. As the gas leaks, it lowers ambient oxygen levels below safe thresholds. When levels of oxygen in the air fall below 16 percent, people can experience adverse health affects. Additionally, university property can be damaged by fires or explosions.
All it takes it a couple of breaths of oxygen-deficient air for symptoms including confusion, dizziness, fatigue, muscular aches, lack of consciousness, and even death.

Given the clear dangers that these gases pose, universities and schools must take steps to protect their students and staff. Fortunately, there is an easy and cost-effective way to detect gas leaks and alert everyone before oxygen is depleted from the air: Installing an O2 monitor.

An O2 monitor, also called an O2 deficiency monitor, measures levels of oxygen in the air all the time. As long as the air has adequate oxygen, the monitor will stay silent. When levels fall below safe thresholds, the oxygen deficiency monitor will flash lights and sound an alarm. This way, everyone in the vicinity of the leak can escape without suffering adverse health effects.

An O2 deficiency monitor should be installed anywhere that these gases are used or stored. Universities and schools may wish to equip labs, storage facilities, equipment rooms, and hallways or corridors that connect storage rooms with labs or classrooms where the gas is used.

PureAire offers robust oxygen deficiency monitors that feature best in class construction. Made with zirconium oxide sensors, these monitors offer 10 or more years of maintenance-free performance once installed. These monitors can detect leaks of gases including argon, nitrogen, and helium. View PureAire’s line of oxygen deficiency monitors at