Evaluating Safety

Employee performance evaluation forms

C&EN has a comprehensive story out today on the lab fire and its aftermath at the University of California, Los Angeles. Research Assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji died as a result of injuries sustained in the fire, which occurred while she was handling tert-butyllithium.

One of the things that has come up repeatedly while I’ve been covering the incident is the fact that, while industrial research labs reportedly have no problem managing to include safety in job expectations and performance reviews, that is something that is not done in academia. In terms of faculty expectations, perhaps research, teaching, and service should explicitly be safe research.

Neal Langerman, the founder of the company Advanced Chemical Safety and a consultant to the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Committee on Chemical Safety, has gone so far as to contact the ACS Board Committee on Grants and Awards to discuss how ACS (which publishes C&EN) might consider including safety records in award decisions. He discussed the proposal with the committee during a conference call in July. The committee will consider the idea at future meetings, says Eric C. Bigham, the committee’s chair.

While incorporating safety into grant or award decisions may sound like a good idea (or not–I know that at least Chemjobber disagrees), as in many things, the devil might be in the details.

For example, in a letter Langerman wrote to former ACS president Bill Carroll, Langerman notes that:

In 2005, the F. Albert Cotton Award was presented to Philip Power of UC Davis. The same day he accepted the award, a member of the UC Davis [Environmental Health & Safety] staff was presenting an incident report to [the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety] on a serious fire in Professor Power’s laboratory at Davis in 2004. The fire involved the misuse of a water-reactive chemical and caused $610,000 in damage.

According to Debbie M. Decker, the UC Davis safety officer who presented the incident report, researchers in Power’s group had shut down and allowed the lab’s hot pot distillation apparatus to cool before the building water, which was used for cooling, was shut down for maintenance. The water valves, however, were left open. When the building water came back on, the pressure spike was high enough to blow out one or more glass condensers and put water into contact with sodium and potassium metal. The ensuing fire pretty much destroyed the lab; fortunately, no one was hurt.

Leaving the water lines open wasn’t a hazard that anyone had foreseen, Decker says. Should the incident have cost Power his award?

There’s also the issue of how generally to benchmark safety records. Academia, by its very nature, has a disproportionate number of young, inexperienced researchers when compared to industry or government research labs. In that context, how do you determine what is a good or bad safety record? Sangji was working in the lab of UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran. Harran was listed as a supervisor on four incidents in the five years before he left the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center for UCLA, according to incident reports obtained by C&EN through a public records request:

  • On Sept. 9, 2003, a postdoctoral fellow “was attempting a rapid distillation of Adypicadehyde (sic) using high heat. When he lowered the temperature, the beaker containing the chemical suddenly exploded in his face.” The postdoc was wearing regular prescription glasses, not safety glasses or goggles. “His face received numerous cuts, his eyes were affected, and his hearing was impaired.”
  • On Feb. 1, 2007, a lab member “was preparing a chromatography column for use, by loading the solvent faction (sic), when the solvent vessel ‘burped,’ causing the solvent vessel and column to separate, allowing the solvent to spray out of the top of the column.” The researcher had the hood sash raised so he could adjust the solvent flow. He was wearing safety glasses instead of goggles, and the solvent ran down his forehead and into his eyes. The resulting injury was listed as “burn to both eyes.”
  • On Feb. 25, 2007, the same lab member was running a chromatography column when pressure built up and the column “spurted out solvents including chloroform and acetonitrile.” His injuries included “redness and irritation of the left eye; swelling of the eyelids; vision slightly blurred.”
  • On May 16, 2007, another UT Southwestern faculty member was bending a spatula when the spatula broke and punctured his left hand. (“What could have prevented this incident? Using plyers to bend spatula instead of hands.”)

I’m certainly not qualified to say whether or not that’s a good safety record, although it would seem to indicate a need to emphasize proper eye protection (and a set of plyers).

What do you think, readers? Is including safety in grant and award applications a good idea? If so, how do you do it?

Tomorrow on C&ENtral: Personal Protection from Fire
See also: Safety in Academic Labs

Other blogs that have covered the UCLA incident: Chemistry Blog (Mitch has a running list at the end of all the coverage the story has received), Chemjobber, Mad Chemist Chick, In the Pipeline, The Chem Blog (please let me know if I’ve missed anyone)

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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3 Comments

  1. While I stand by my disagreement with Dr. Langerman and Beryl Lieff Benderly in that I think it will incentivize hiding incidents, I will fully admit that this is the sort of proposed regulation that will cause professors to begin acting on their own, or as a group. So, from that perspective, if it’s a bad idea, it’s a really useful bad idea.

  2. I am experienced researcher and have worked in academic and industry labs over 20 years. I read this story and am appalled by it at several levels. Overall I would agree the academic researchers don’t take safety serious enough. Futhermore, the academic setting has been focused more on results rather than the training of future sceintists as this case shows. Specifically, I think professor Harran should be severly repremanded for lack of training and supervision and possible criminal neglect. The authorities in California as well as the leadership in both UCLA and the ACS should step in and evaluate his right to perform research and supervise graduate students. Furthermore, they should make it clear that safety procedures stand equal with research results as a cultural norm for all laboratory behavior. They need to set an example with this case, carry it into governmental jurisdiction, and inflict penalties to make people change their behaviors. Killing a person by accident is still a crime. Once the DA understands the gross negligence here, he could easily decide to make this case an example. The leadership in the University, the ACS, and the State of California need to take responsability here, stand up for what is right and not make her death a wasted life.

  3. It a good point that many researchers are youmg. Some take safety more seriously than others, but all have a duty to do so.

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