When Sheri Sangji was injured in a laboratory fire at the University of California, Los Angeles, the extent of her injuries—second and third degree burns to 43% of her body, as well as heat damage to her eyes—perhaps could have been reduced had she been wearing appropriate personal protective equipment. “Cal/OSHA said the lack of a lab coat was the single most significant factor in the severity of the burns that led to Sangji’s death,” according to a UCLA press release.
But a standard cotton lab coat does not provide much protection from fire, at least not unless the coat can be removed quickly enough to prevent the fire from spreading to the wearer’s clothing, says David Greenhalgh, a professor and chief of burn surgery in the UC Davis Health System and chief of staff for the burn center at Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California.
Cotton and silk are very flammable, Greenhalgh says, while rayon burns easily but not as intensely, wool is difficult to ignite, and polyesters and nylon tend to melt and limit the spread of flames. He advises that researchers handling flammable materials use special flame-resistant lab coats.
When asked whether Sangji’s injuries could also have been lessened if the laboratory shower had been used to put out the flames rather than a lab coat, Greenhalgh says that the important thing is not how a fire is put out, but how quickly. “Stop, drop, and roll” is still the best approach if a shower or fire blanket isn’t nearby, he says, since running across a room will fan the flames.
Greenhalgh adds that showers are actually not recommended for extensive burns under typical circumstances, because the skin normally provides a thermal barrier and a cold shower can lead to hypothermia in a badly burned victim. In a lab incident, however, a shower may still be necessary for decontamination purposes.
Lab coats, of course, don’t protect your hands. There isn’t an adequate solution for hand protection, says Neal Langerman, the founder of the company Advanced Chemical Safety and a consultant to the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Committee on Chemical Safety. Truly flame-resistant gloves are bulky, so a wearer loses dexterity and thereby introduces risk of another sort. Many of the people Langerman works with choose to wear lightweight gloves that offer minimal fire protection, accepting that their hands are at risk of getting burned, he says, adding that “I don’t like it but I don’t have a good workaround.” A tight-weave Nomex, Kevlar, or leather-Nomex pilot’s glove will give about 3-5 seconds of skin protection from flames, as well as some protection from flying glass, Langerman says.
Langerman and Harry J. Elston, editor of the Journal of Chemical Health & Safety, will be conducting the ACS Division of Chemical Health and Safety‘s “Ask Dr. Safety” session on preventing laboratory explosions at the upcoming ACS National Meeting in DC. Also at the meeting will be a preview of the National Academies’ revisions to Prudent Practices in the Laboratory: Safe Handling and Disposal of Chemicals, presented by William F. Carroll Jr., a co-chair of the Prudent Practices update committee, an ACS past-president, and vice president for chlorovinyl issues at Occidental Chemical.
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