Some Thoughts on Lab Incidents

Sangji was an avid soccer player and planned to start law school this fall.

Sangji was an avid soccer player and planned to start law school this fall.

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:

  1. Graduate student hurt in nitric acid explosion in lab at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (January, 2009)
  2. Nitric acid spill injures Boise State lab manager (March, 2009)
  3. Researcher mixes two unidentified acids and winds up with broken flasks and spilled chemicals at the University of Maryland (March, 2009)
  4. Three hurt in lab fire at Wesleyan University (April, 2009)
  5. Explosion on Notre Dame campus burns graduate student (April, 2009)
  6. Reaction vessel explosion burns researcher at McGill University (May, 2009)
  7. Fire from carbon disulfide in a rotovap at the University of Calgary (June, 2009)
  8. Chemical reaction in storage cabinet leads to explosion at Boston University (June, 2009)
  9. Alcohol ignites, fire spreads to plastics in lab at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (June, 2009)
  10. Hexane spill at St. Joseph’s University (July, 2009)
  11. Sodium fire at Texas A&M University (July, 2009)
  12. Sulfuric acid, hydrogen peroxide, and sodium nitroprusside spilled at Lehigh University (July, 2009)
  13. Industry: Researcher dies from trimethylsilyl diazomethane exposure after working with ventilation system off (January, 2009)
  14. University of British Columbia, Okanagan, student burned by acid wasn’t following safety rules (added 8/28/2009)
  15. Central Michigan University researcher drops beaker of ethylenediamine and methanol, burns faculty member (added 9/4/2009)
  16. Two students burned in an ethanol fire at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne (added 09/14/2009)
  17. Picric acid spill at the College of the North Atlantic, in Newfoundland (added 10/30/2009)
  18. Fire in University of Colorado, Boulder, chemistry building due to “long-term experiment” (added 10/30/2009)
  19. University of Chicago researcher died from exposure to a weakened strain of plague bacteria (added 10/30/2009)
  20. Isobutyl cyanide spill at Baylor University (added 10/30/2009)
  21. Mercury spill at McLennan Community College, in Texas (added 10/30/2009)
  22. Hydrogen leak at Boston University (added 10/30/2009)
  23. Nitric acid and potassium cyanide spill at Georgia Tech sends three graduate students to the hospital (added 10/30/2009)
  24. 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.

Sheri Sangji at her graduation from Pomona College in May, 2008, with her parents, brother, and sister.

Sangji at her graduation from Pomona College in May, 2008, with her parents, brother, and sister.

Photos courtesy of Naveen Sangji.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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10 Comments

  1. Please check your links. Most are dead and I would have assumed you are checking these things before publishing this online.

  2. Thanks for the head’s up, Steve. Somehow we wound up with an extra set of quotation marks in the coding of the list items and that threw off the links. Our blog post editor doesn’t allow us to click through to check links, but I’ve just learned that we can do so if we “preview” the post.

  3. Some links are really slow. Is it the dial-up modem or high activity?

  4. C&EN has appeared to do a fantastic job covering this story. It will be interesting to see if knowledge of the details of this incident prompts any significant procedural charges in chemistry departments across the country. Despite the fact that the nature of our work involves young, inexperienced researchers working with or around very hazardous materials, it makes no sense to me that so little time and effort are devoted to safety training in academic labs in general.

    One specific thing that I have a question about in this case is what is appropriate in terms of removing clothing off of incapacitated labmates. For instance, one can certainly ask whether this story would have had a different outcome had the contaminated clothes been removed immediately. (I still have not seen an answer to the question of what would the best first response have been: i) removing clothing immediately, ii) going to the shower immediately, iii) using a fire blanket immediately, iv) using a fire extinguisher immediately, or v) none of the above. My guess is that removing the clothes, which appeared to soak up the spilled reagent, would have been the best move, but I am not an expert by any means.)

    I can see how a male labmate could be relucant to remove clothing from a female labmate. We could certainly use training on hypothetical situations where our litigious society has trained us to do the opposite (i.e., …in these situations, rip the clothes off of someone and don’t worry about the consequences).

  5. @Dennis: I have no idea. Most of the links go to relatively small, local news sources, so they may not have the bandwidth of, say, CNN or the NYT.

    @Paul: My understanding, based on my discussion with burn surgeon David Greenhalgh, is that the thing to do is just to get the fire out ASAP. Shower, fire blanket, lab coat, drop & roll, whatever–just stop yourself or whoever else from burning. Then, yes, I would guess that if you or your labmate is still wearing possibly contaminated clothing, the thing to do would be to get it off and get under the shower. I’m not an expert, either, though, so this is really a question for your local EH&S officer.

  6. @Paul and @Jyllian the only right answer was to immediately throw Sangji into the safety shower. You guys just gave me the impetus to review fire safety training over at my blog later this week.

  7. I’ve been following this story with fairly keen interest because I did my graduate training at UCLA around 20 years ago, and I was acquainted with a fellow graduate student by the name of Dan O’Leary, who went on to become Sangji’s undergraduate adviser at Pomona College. It makes me sad and angry at the same time. I think it’s clear to a lot of people that culture of safety has traditionally been pretty haphazard and uneven in academia, because every professor has their own little fiefdom, and their own unique approach. Clearly, the departments and the universities have to take charge in a very firm way to bring about the needed changes. I found myself rather annoyed with the comments of Harvard’s E.J. Corey, who deemed the use of t-BuLi in that synthesis appropriate. Frankly, I find that attitude symptomatic of the culture of “macho synthesis”, that often leads to needless risk taking on the part of students who work for these people. If I were doing that synthesis, I would definitely have used commercially available vinyl Grignard. And if the yield is lower than with the lithium reagent, so what? The starting ketone isn’t horribly expensive, so scale the reaction up and then vacuum distill the product. Is that so terrible? Clearly, but for any one of several unlucky and unwise mistakes Sangji would still be alive, so the chosen synthetic route is only one part of the whole story. But it does stick in my craw. On a more positive note, I commend Rick Danheiser and his MIT colleagues for setting very positive example on the right way to handle safety at a major research university.

  8. I have worked in the field of Anionic Polymerization for 40 years. I have recently retired after working for a well known Rubber Co for 25 years in the same field. I have had the privelge of training 40 Coop students in the use of Organolithium Compounds for making Solution SBR Rubber for tire application and i know and confirm that non of them ever got hurt or burned with Organolithium solution. In the case of pyrophoric organolithium compounds My compay bought Lab coat and gloves that are fire proof for handling such pyrophoric compounds and couducted fire drills yearly in this field. I feel that the death of SANGLI could have been prvented if she had the proper protection that should have been available for her knowledge that experiment and the understanding fro her professor that the use of t_Butyllithiun danger when used in more than 20ml solutuin. This incedent is truely a case of negliganec either by her professor of the UCLA school. My sincere condulance to her family .

    When our school of higher learning lean who to protect theses students. It really a very simple proceedure are busy filing Patent.

  9. No seriously, stop with this Baylor “cyanide” BS. I read that story and felt embarrassed for the dumbass grad student that flipped out and had a hazmat team called in. It’s equally embarrassing that journalists cover it as if disaster was narrowly averted. Probably Baylor’s countermeasure to keep the department from looking like buffoons.

  10. If anything good is going to come out of this it is the fact that other schools and university institutions are now reviewing their saftey records and hence hopefully this wont happen again.

    Its hard to believe that if this happened privately the facts would have been kept underwraps. I think institutions have a duty to share information on such matters so lessons can be learned.

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  2. Friday Safety Bytes at C&ENtral Science - [...] spent some time this morning updating my list of lab safety incidents so far this year. Although the list …