Workplace safety agency to probe death of deputy sheriff after apparent asphyxiation at Xytex in Augusta

A liquid nitrogen release at a Xytex cryopreservation facility in Augusta, US, led to the death of a local deputy sheriff and hospitalisation of several others on 5 February.

Xytex has referred to the incident as a ‘liquid nitrogen pressure surge’. During a 6 February news conference, Richmond County sheriff Richard Roundtree said Sgt. Greg Meagher was responding to a burglar alarm at the Xytex facility along with several other deputies, and noticed a small vapour cloud coming from under the door. They contacted the local fire department for assistance. In the meantime, a facility keyholder arrived and went inside to ‘shut off a valve’, Roundtree recounted. When she failed to return promptly, Meagher went to find her and was later found unconscious. Once the fire service arrived with breathing apparatus, the keyholder was found and recovered from the building alive.

Several other deputies suffered breathing difficulties and were hospitalised, but have since been released. They include one who entered the building wearing a gas mask, but retreated after discovering the mask was ineffective.

Xytex offers cryopreservation of human cells and tissues, including semen. The company said none of the tissue stored at its Augusta facility was damaged in the incident. The Georgia state fire marshal’s office has since taken two liquid nitrogen tanks at the facility offline, as they had not been inspected, and the company had not obtained proper permits. Both Xytex and Airgas – which installed and owns the tanks, and supplies the nitrogen – have been cited for violations.

Roundtree said that he doesn’t foresee any criminal charges in this case, but perhaps some environmental sanctions. The local Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has opened an investigation of the incident, which is expected to be completed within six months. Roundtree confirmed that OSHA will determine whether the nitrogen was properly stored.