• John Larrimer

Can This Invisible Workplace Hazard Endanger Ohio’s Steelworkers?

Earlier this year, a worker employed by TimkenSteel was found dead from nitrogen asphyxiation. The worker died checking fire extinguishers in the control room at TimkenSteel’s Ohio plant. An investigation revealed that nitrogen had leaked into the control room through the ventilation system, creating an oxygen deficient atmosphere.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has fined TimkenSteel for failing to protect workers from hazardous atmospheres created by nitrogen leaking into the ventilation system. OSHA also fined TimkenSteel for failing to train workers how to recognize workplace hazards created by nitrogen-powered tools and how to detect leaks.

Why is Nitrogen Exposure So Dangerous to Workers?

In 2003, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released a publication discussing how workers can fall victim to nitrogen asphyxiation. About 78 percent of the air we breathe consists of nitrogen, which is odorless and tasteless, but it can be deadly when found in higher concentrations.

Many incidents investigated by the CSB involved workers who had unknowingly entered an oxygen-deficient environment. It is very easy for workers who enter these environments to believe they are breathing in oxygen. Most of the fatal workplace accidents investigated by CSB involved workers who did not have the proper training to detect hazards.

For this reason, it is important for workers to be trained on the hazards created by nitrogen. According to OSHA, employers should also identify all permit-required confined spaces. These are spaces that may contain a hazardous atmosphere. Confined spaces with high concentrations of nitrogen qualify as a permit-confined space. These spaces should be outfitted with warning signs, flashing lights or audible alarms.

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