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Safety solutions for dry ice hazard: How to plan for COVID-19 vaccine transportation

Safety Solutions for Dry Ice Hazard: How to Plan for COVID-19 Vaccine Transportation

The worldwide distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine requires uninterrupted cold chains and reliable protection for all the personnel involved. Learn how Honeywell can help.

As much as COVID-19 has put a strain on businesses and people worldwide, the challenges have become even more complex with the arrival and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines in 2021. To transport the vaccine from the laboratory and make sure it reaches the entire population requires a seamlessly working supply chain of refrigerated transportation, storage and distribution. The unprecedented worldwide operation will put to the test the reliability of supply chain logistics and require increased safety of all the personnel involved.

It will be a strategic and hazardous operation that most of the world is underprepared for. For starters, UNICEF is planning to deliver almost to 2 billion doses of COVID-19  vaccines to over 92 countries in 2021. Governments are already drafting plans to consider the specific requirements of the COVID-19 vaccine, its delivery, storage and distribution, as well as helping to keep delivery workers safe and sound.

Running an uninterrupted cold chain

All vaccine distribution plans will have at their core the cooling equipment and cold chain infrastructure. Any failure along the links of the chain has the potential to cause costly disruptions in the entire operation, as some of the potential vaccine options require storage at extremely cold temperatures (-70°C).

As is the case with other shipments of perishable goods, which require very low temperatures to be transported, the ideal solution is to use dry ice. Dry ice is the solid form of carbon dioxide (CO2) and is used regularly to maintain low temperatures for a sustained period. As such, the vaccine containers will be packed with dry ice, although, admittedly, a much larger quantity than usual.

The problem with this plan is that dry ice shifts directly from a solid to a gas at temperatures higher than -78°C (-108.4°F) under normal atmospheric pressure. CO2 replaces oxygen in the air and tends to accumulate, especially in confined areas, so workers should be aware of the hazards associated with CO2.

If you add to this an increased rate of sublimation at reduced pressures, such as when transported by aircraft, the risk is that CO2 will displace oxygen even more quickly, causing difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, and even death.

The challenge of any distribution plan is two-fold: keeping delivery workers safe and running a seamless cold chain. From the moment the vaccine is produced, to the moment of inoculation, nothing must be left to chance.

Best practices for workers’ safety

The hazardous environment created by the dry ice in the transport of the COVID-19 vaccine pose a serious threat to the health of the personnel involved in this massive initiative.

Working in extremely cold environments, handling dry ice and any direct contact with the skin can lead to a series of health issues, and even the risk of fatality. Exposure to extreme cold can lead to painful frostbites. Not to mention, the lack of oxygen can cause permanent damages to organs, and if workers are exposed to a high concentration of CO₂, they can start to experience rapid breathing and heart rate, dizziness, disorientation, headaches and fatigue. Should CO₂ concentrations exceed 10%, they can suffer convulsions, vomiting, and even die.

Here are some best practices to keep in mind when considering the health risks of exposure to very cold environments and high concentration of CO2:

1.     Handle with care. Because dry ice is, well, cold, the vaccine shipments should never be manipulated without proper thermal protection, such as Honeywell’s safety gloves, with enhanced protection against cold temperatures, superior comfort and firm wet and dry grip. And there could be more than a single application for these. For example, the cryogenic gloves offer protection against small drops of liquid gas up to - 170°C, whereas the Rig Dog Knit Cold Protect gloves have a winter lining option, offering protection and comfort in cold environments.

2.     Protection for eyes and face – As workers manipulate the vaccine shipments, their face remains exposed to flying dust, debris and chemical splash accidents. The safety glasses (sealed) or goggles, like Honeywell’s Uvex Stealth, are especially designed to protect against these hazards. Featuring premium Uvex HydroShield® Anti-fog coating, these glasses empower workers to use them confidently, knowing they will not have to deal with the fogging that can occur while entering and exiting the cold. As an extra layer of protection, the Honeywell Disposable Face Shield with anti-fog coating to avoid visibility issues, will ensure full face protection.

3.     Portable CO2 detector.  To mitigate the risks of exposure to the damaging effects of CO2, the personnel can be equipped with a portable, easy to use, CO2 detector. Take for example the Honeywell BW™ SOLO CO2, which is a portable single-gas detector for CO2. It is compact and user-friendly, having just one button, and its large display can be seen even through PPE.

4.     Be prepared for the worst-case scenario. Nothing beats good preparedness in case an incident happens. In this case, the worst-case scenario is a leak or an issue that creates an environment immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH), such as a low-oxygen environment. For these incidents, an SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus), such as Honeywell’s BA1000 and ER7000, should be on hand for workers to use for emergency escape or cleaning up. Since their use is occasional and typically for emergencies, this SCBA has been specially designed for ease of use.

5.     Awareness of risks. Considering the sheer size of the COVID-19 vaccine transportation operation, it is likely that additional personnel will be needed, besides the existing workers who are already trained in mitigating the risks of handling hazardous materials. Both categories should be aware of the potential hazard and all personnel involved should receive appropriate training to be able to understand, recognize and limit risks associated with exposure to dry ice.

The logistics of the cold chain

The supply chain operation must ensure transportation at a constant low temperature, to avoid spoilage of the vaccine before it gets to the recipients. Fortunately, there’s a variety of technologies at our disposal that can be put to good use.

Here are some of the challenges of an uninterrupted cold chain, and the innovations which can help mitigate the risks:

1.     Sensors and detectors for temperature. The demand for temperature-controlled sites will increase exponentially worldwide, as the vaccines will need to be stored safely during their transportation. Warehouses will be built or converted into cold storage facilities globally, to meet the demand for storage. To prevent spoilage of this extremely sensitive product, real-time monitoring of the state of the product is a must. This allows logistics companies to intervene before damage is done to this costly cargo. As such, sensors and detectors will be deployed to provide the real-time information necessary to oversee the state of the cargo, from temperature sensors and probes, to vibration sensors and  position sensors

All these sensors can be employed in a supply chain designed to monitor temperature, either by themselves or in combination:

a. Thermistor temperature probes can be deployed to detect any change in temperature, as they are very effective in sensing temperatures of gases, liquids or solids, because of their enhanced sensitivity.

b. Any basic switch can be used to tell if a container has been opened, thus exposing the inside to possibly damaging temperatures. The Honeywell GLA limit switches series can detect the open and closed status of various doors and is also designed to function effectively in temperature extremes.

c. Magnetic sensors respond to the presence or the interruption of a magnetic field, and can sense the angle, position & speed of a container, for example.

2.     Sensing for CO2 gas. A CO2 sensor is a must-have for any COVID-19 vaccine transportation application. The CRIR Series gas sensors can detect the presence of CO2, indicating that the container is running out of dry ice. With a small size and enhanced long term stability, the infrared sensors have increased selectivity and sensitivity to CO2.

3.     Chain of custody. Cold chain track and trace will be used to mitigate the risks associated with transport, storage and to ensure authenticity. Each vaccine will have to be traced at every step of the journey, from lab to patient. It’s essential for personnel to have full visibility and tracking capabilities through the entire supply chain process. Honeywell’s industry leading barcode decoding OEM solutions can be used to ensure chain of custody visibility, giving suppliers the control required to secure the vaccines. Honeywell’s scan engines and patented decode software enables the reading of barcodes quickly and reliably so the deliveries can be verified in real-time with accuracy. Also, delivery points can change with little notice. With Honeywell OEM solutions you will always know where your deliveries are so you can quickly pivot to a new delivery location. With an operating temperature of -30°C to 60°C Honeywell’s Scan Engines can stand up to the harshest of environments.

4.     Theft prevention. The COVID-19 vaccine will become a hot commodity, and especially in countries with weaker logistics systems, it will become a target. To prevent this from happening, containers will have to be equipped with security systems. Basic switches are a good way to tell if a container has been opened and its contents have been stolen or tampered with. Honeywell’s subminiature switches are ideal for applications where space on the equipment is at a premium, such as in large shipments of the vaccine.

So, whether you’re thinking about the safety of the workers along the supply chain, or the logistics of the supply chain itself, Honeywell has you covered.