Academic EH&S and You

I'm curious, folks. I've been reporting on a couple of stories lately that involve university EH&S departments. One of the stories, of course, was the incident at UCLA that led to the death of Sheharbano Sangji. In reading various other blog posts and comments (here, here, here, here, here, and here, to start) about Sangji's death, one thing has struck me: No one in academia seems to interact much with their EH&S departments, whether to get safety input or to dispose of chemicals. Ohio State UniversityNow, I know that I didn't see or hear much from EH&S during my grad student years, but  the most dangerous thing I handled was probably liquid helium. The risks were pretty obvious. What about the rest of you? The university EH&S people I've spoken with recently sound like they'd be more than happy to work with people in campus labs to solve whatever issues come up. So why aren't you talking with them? You can respond here if you like or e-mail me directly at j_kemsley@acs.org. It would be helpful for me to hear about specific institutions. Image: The aftermath of a 2005 fire at Ohio State University that we ran with Using Accidents to Educate.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. Here at Stanford, safety is taken quite seriously. I’m sure that a PI or student can still skirt the rules and ignore problems, but the EH&S really tries hard to provide a safe working environment. We have regular inspections from the County Fire Department for fire safety and from EH&S for chemical storage and lab safety.

    But maybe my view is warped, because my PI is very safety conscious—and even sits on safety committees. I hope other labs (especially those that use actually dangerous chemicals) are just as safe!

  2. Forgive my cynicism, but our EH&S department is useless. We once had a disaster where a postdoc in our lab didn’t properly cinch his condenser lines and one popped loose and flooded the hood. He had sodium metal in a bin underneath his hood that got covered in water. A drop of water sat on top of the oil, threatening to sink to the bottom and ignite the sodium. Upon observation, EH&S told us they didn’t want to get the water out and either have our PI (who was out of the country at the time) take care of it when he got back or do it ourselves, which we did.

    When they passed through with the fire marshall, they proceeded to leave us notes that they couldn’t easily identify the compounds we were working with (even though the chemical structure was written on every vial and flask) and that we should “come up with simple abbreviations for them. For example, ACN for acetonitrile.” I was tempted to send them a list of every compound I have in my hood and ask them to figure out abbreviations for me. I’d love for them to actually do some work and figure out how to abbreviate every compound I’ve synthesized in my methodology papers.