C&EN has put out a lot of information this week on the UCLA lab fire that led to the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, with the magazine story and accompanying investigation reports, as well as the posts here on the blog. I have a few more thoughts before we wrap up.
First, it’s important to keep in mind that the only reason C&EN was able to get as much information as it did about what happened to Sangji was because the incident occurred at a public university that is subject to public records laws. Most of the reports belonged to UCLA’s fire marshals, fire department, police department, and environmental health & safety office. The notes and reports of people in similar positions at a private school would be unattainable if the school chose not to release them.
Cal/OSHA collected complementary information, but the agency would not have been involved had Sangji been a student. Undergraduate and graduate students, and sometimes even postdocs, are typically not considered to be university employees, even if they’re paid a stipend. Cal/OSHA and similar agencies only have jurisdiction over employees. (On a separate but related note, students also may not be eligible for worker’s compensation.)
Second, getting the facts right in this case has been a challenge, despite the fact that C&EN reporters and editors work hard to ensure that the information in our stories comes from reliable sources. One example is that C&EN initially reported that Sangji was wearing a synthetic sweater, based on a post to the American Chemical Society’s Division of Chemical Health & Safety e-mail list. But that detail didn’t seem to be included in the documents C&EN later reviewed. Another example was the fact that the Cal/OSHA summary of the incident said that Sangji had been syringing only 20 mL of tert-butyllithium, when she was really aiming for three 50 mL transfers.
Now take a moment to imagine how incident information likely gets distorted when institutions aren’t upfront about what happened in an incident and documentation isn’t available, and the chemistry community is forced to play a game of telephone. As research labs and universities take a look at their safety programs in light of Sangji’s death, I hope that they also consider their responsibility to the research community to disseminate information–C&EN’s Safety Letters are one way to do so–so that others can learn from what happened. I realize that a fear of lawsuits is probably what drives some to clamp down, but as some medical doctors have found, perhaps if you step up, take responsibility for what went wrong, and explain what you’ll do to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, those lawsuits will be less likely to come.
Last but not least, here are some other recent incidents that haven’t received as much attention as the one at UCLA.
None but the last Only one involves a fatality but many of the incidents sent people to the hospital. UCLA is clearly not alone in having bad things happen in research labs:
- Graduate student hurt in nitric acid explosion in lab at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (January, 2009)
- Nitric acid spill injures Boise State lab manager (March, 2009)
- Researcher mixes two unidentified acids and winds up with broken flasks and spilled chemicals at the University of Maryland (March, 2009)
- Three hurt in lab fire at Wesleyan University (April, 2009)
- Explosion on Notre Dame campus burns graduate student (April, 2009)
- Reaction vessel explosion burns researcher at McGill University (May, 2009)
- Fire from carbon disulfide in a rotovap at the University of Calgary (June, 2009)
- Chemical reaction in storage cabinet leads to explosion at Boston University (June, 2009)
- Alcohol ignites, fire spreads to plastics in lab at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (June, 2009)
- Hexane spill at St. Joseph’s University (July, 2009)
- Sodium fire at Texas A&M University (July, 2009)
- Sulfuric acid, hydrogen peroxide, and sodium nitroprusside spilled at Lehigh University (July, 2009)
- Industry: Researcher dies from trimethylsilyl diazomethane exposure after working with ventilation system off (January, 2009)
- University of British Columbia, Okanagan, student burned by acid wasn’t following safety rules (added 8/28/2009)
- Central Michigan University researcher drops beaker of ethylenediamine and methanol, burns faculty member (added 9/4/2009)
- Two students burned in an ethanol fire at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne (added 09/14/2009)
- Picric acid spill at the College of the North Atlantic, in Newfoundland (added 10/30/2009)
- Fire in University of Colorado, Boulder, chemistry building due to “long-term experiment” (added 10/30/2009)
- University of Chicago researcher died from exposure to a weakened strain of plague bacteria (added 10/30/2009)
- Isobutyl cyanide spill at Baylor University (added 10/30/2009)
- Mercury spill at McLennan Community College, in Texas (added 10/30/2009)
- Hydrogen leak at Boston University (added 10/30/2009)
- Nitric acid and potassium cyanide spill at Georgia Tech sends three graduate students to the hospital (added 10/30/2009)
- Explosion in oven at a state environmental lab in Montana sends one lab worker to the hospital (added 10/30/2009)
As others have noted, as careful as you might be in the lab, blow-ups happen. To paraphrase what Stanford University chemistry professor Robert M. Waymouth told me, that’s why it’s critical to understand and think through what you’re doing and be prepared for the worst. Laboratory safety is not about doing what a regulation or a safety official forces you to do–it’s about ensuring that at the end of the day you still have your eyes, or your hands, or your life.
Photos courtesy of Naveen Sangji.