Lab security is not just for the big guys
Jul03

Lab security is not just for the big guys

In catching up with my reading of the Journal of Chemical Health & Safety, I was struck by the paper “Lions, tigers, and bears: Managing research security in academia,” by Maureen Kotlas, director of environmental health and safety at the University of Missouri, Columbia. I was particularly interested in the various regulatory requirements for development of security plans for laboratories, and it occurred to me that most of these requirements don’t actually apply, in particular, to smaller academic facilities. Maureen lists DHS, DOT, NRC, USDA, HHS/NIH, CDC, and AAALAC as all having requirements to assess security measures in labs (please forgive the abbreviations – just spelling those out would take half a page!). Most of those requirements apply only to certain types of labs, particularly those with animals or doing clinical work. In fact, most academic laboratories would only have to deal with the DHS requirements, and then only if they have threshold quantities of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards. So, what are the real drivers for chemical security in academic labs, and how secure are chemicals in academia? Having traveled abroad and visited chemistry departments in other countries, I don’t see any consistency in chemical security. Some labs have chemicals kept so secure there would appear to be no chance of theft, deliberate misuse, or vandalism. Others present almost an open invitation to anyone with a desire to blow up things, outfit an illegal drug lab, or poison someone. The Kotlas article touts security devices such as key-card entry, pan-tilt cameras, and vehicle access control. All of those can be effective parts of a security plan, but most are likely too expensive for smaller institutions to implement. I see two general problems in the area of lab security. One is a lack of resources for many smaller colleges and universities. The second is a laissez-faire attitude that many facilities need to work to overcome. Security risk and vulnerability assessments are not difficult or necessarily expensive. A simple walk-through of facilities by someone who doesn’t work there but knows what to look for is a good start; I’d recommend the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety’s security vulnerability checklist for anyone who isn’t sure how to proceed or what to look...

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Reflecting on #chemsafety at #ACSPhilly
Aug22

Reflecting on #chemsafety at #ACSPhilly

There’s been a whirlwind of safety activity at the ACS meeting this week! The safety culture symposium was very well attended, and the speakers continually came up with new and effective approaches for the attendees to consider. For my part, I realized that I need to change one aspect of my chemical hygiene officer training. I’ve regularly used the combination of engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment (PPE) as the triangle of safe practice in the laboratory. It’s clear that I need to add a fourth corner: safety culture. The proper use of engineering controls (hoods, eliminating processes, isolating equipment, etc.), administrative controls (rules, policies, procedures), and certainly PPE is not enough without safe behavior in the use of those controls. Also, the paradigm we use in keeping laboratories safe has an economic component. Laboratories should be putting more emphasis on the operational costs of the laboratory, particularly energy. Looking at each aspect of laboratory operation from a “green” perspective has real value, since reducing costs can often result in the ability to increase budgets elsewhere. We’ve also heard some news relating to the University of California system’s agreement with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office to follow the terms of a specified lab safety program at all of its campuses. The UC campuses are beginning to work together to develop consistent training programs to address the requirements, and UC has asked ACS to validate the program once it has been finalized. This peer review, which would most likely be performed by come combination of Division of Chemical Health & Safety and Committee on Chemical Safety members, could help the UC system substantiate compliance. Pending legal review and agreement between ACS and the UC Board of Regents, it appears this will move forward, since both CHAS and CCS agreed unanimously to support the project. The weather in Philadelphia has been great, the sessions well attended, and the lab safety community has had plenty to talk about. All in all, it’s been an excellent meeting! Thanks to all who participated, and if you couldn’t make it, we hope to see you in New Orleans in...

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A case study: Possible hydrogen fluoride exposure
Aug01

A case study: Possible hydrogen fluoride exposure

How would you have handled this situation? Three chemists in a small laboratory were moving some old chemicals to a staging area prior to disposal. Many of the chemicals were simply unopened expired reagents, while others had been previously opened and used. After perhaps a half hour of moving chemicals, one of the workers complained of a severe burning sensation on the palm of his hand. When he removed his latex glove, his hand had some minor swelling and redness but no outward sign of burning. His pain quickly became worse. A quick examination of the chemicals he had been handling showed that most were fairly innocuous, but one was a gallon container of waste labeled “HNO3, H2SO4, and HF.” The immediate suspicion was that some of the hydrofluoric acid had somehow leached out of the bottle or been spilled, depositing residues on the outside. The waste container was a glass bottle, and no HF has been used in this particular laboratory for approximately 20 years. Of the other chemicals the worker handled, the only one with known skin irritant properties was osmium tetroxide. There was no evidence to suggest significant exposure, since the OsO4 bottles were all contained in a box and had not been handled directly. So what to do? The decision was made to take a conservative approach and treat the hand with calcium gluconate. A tube of 2.5% gel was located fairly quickly. The gel was dated “1993” and had partially separated but appeared to still be viable. The hand was treated heavily with the gel, and a latex glove was then placed over the entire hand. This is all consistent with recommended practice for treating HF burns. The chemist’s pain persisted after treatment, so as a precaution he was taken to an emergency room about five minutes away. The first two medical professionals attending in the emergency room, a registered nurse and a physician’s assistant, were unfamiliar with HF. The workers didn’t bring a material safety data sheet because there was no way to to be sure of the source of the problem, since the suspect container was a mixture of acids. The physician who eventually arrived was well familiar with HF and the appropriate treatment. Since the hand had already been treated appropriately, she prescribed Benadryl (diphenhydramine) to treat possible allergic or sensitivity symptoms and sent the patient on his way. Later in the day, the chemist reported that the pain had subsided and he had no apparent ongoing effects. So… what might we have done...

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My favorite toxic chemical is: Osmium (and its tetroxide)
May21

My favorite toxic chemical is: Osmium (and its tetroxide)

Osmium is the densest of all natural elements and certainly one of the rarest, with worldwide production of about 545 kilograms annually. It’s incredibly expensive stuff, and yet, look at all the varied uses!  Osmium is used by itself or as an alloy for fingerprint detection and in fountain pen tips, pacemakers, light filaments, and jewelry. And it’s reacted with oxygen to form osmium tetroxide. The word osmium actually comes from the Greek word “osme,” or odor, for the unique acrid odor given off by OsO4. Osmium tetroxide is incredibly toxic and has an OSHA permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 0.002 mg/m3. For comparison, elemental mercury vapor has a PEL of 0.1 mg/m3.  Osmium tetroxide might even be considered a perfect component of a terrorist “dirty bomb,” but it’s simply too expensive to buy enough to make that practical. A primary use for OsO4 is for tissue fixation in electron microscopy. Hundreds of hospitals use it in their clinical labs, and when the solution is spent, it needs to be disposed safely. My experience with OsO4 stems primarily from efforts to recycle the spent compound.  Ironically, despite its obvious toxicity, OsO4 isn’t regulated as hazardous waste. While it is certainly toxic to humans, it breaks down fairly readily in the environment, (apparently) isn’t toxic to aquatic or marine life, and isn’t mobile enough to be considered a threat to drinking water.  That means that theoretically one could take this non-regulated waste and sell it for a handsome sum to a refiner who could recover and resell the metal. However, here is a lesson in making sure you know the hazardous waste regulations thoroughly! It turns out that one of the several buffers that labs use with OsO4 is cacodylic acid, which has the formula (CH3)2As(O)OH. Therein lies the rub. While EPA decided that osmium isn’t hazardous to the environment, arsenic is. So, any refiner recovering osmium from the spent solution also containing that particular buffer must have a full-blown EPA hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facility permit! Use a different buffer and you’re fine. It only took me stops at five hospitals to find out the popularity of the cacodylic acid buffer, thus ruining my plans for an early retirement. For more on osmium, check out this essay on the metal from C&EN’s 80th anniversary special issue on the periodic table and this video from the Periodic Table of...

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Moving forward at UCLA
May03

Moving forward at UCLA

With the news last month that the Los Angeles County Superior Court has once again delayed the arraignment of the University of California, Los Angeles, and chemistry professor Patrick Harran on felony charges for labor code violations, it seemed appropriate to take a closer look at what the university is doing to move forward. In response to the death of UCLA laboratory researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, the university instituted a number of safety improvements, including more thorough lab inspections, more flame-resistant lab coats, and additional special training in the use of safety gear and the handling of air-sensitive chemicals. UCLA also established a Center for Laboratory Safety (CLS). According to the CLS website, the center was created to “improve the practice of laboratory safety through the performance of scientific research and implementation of best safety practices in the laboratory.” The Center operates under the oversight of an advisory board, with technical support from the UCLA Office of Environment, Health & Safety (EH&S) and the UCLA School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences. James Gibson, UCLA’s director of EH&S and the executive director of the CLS, has been on the road constantly promoting the center as well as UCLA’s overall response to the Sangji incident. Also promoting the center everywhere has been Erike Young, the EH&S director for UC’s Office of the President. Young is charged with seeing that all of the UC campuses improve their safety culture. He pointed out during his 2010 talk at the National Research Council’s Safety Summit that most UC campuses do not perform “lab safety inspections”, although they may be inspected by individual programs for fire safety, biological safety, radiation safety, etc. Audits commonly find lack of safety training by PIs and research teams, lack of enforcement on PPE requirements, insufficient or improper safety equipment, and lack of follow-up on inspections. Young said that UC’s challenge is to integrate safety management into the basic operation of research laboratories, a concept also championed by the ACS Safety Culture Task Force (pdf). If structure drives behavior, then it stands to reason that laboratory safety issues will more frequently be apparent at facilities without a strong safety culture. Unfortunately, Young noted that university EH&S lab safety is largely regulatory driven, not risk based. This is something the CLS is trying to change. So what has UCLA done to fundamentally change its safety culture? Among other things, the University has appointed a new chemical hygiene officer (CHO), Petros Yiannikouros. I had the pleasure of spending a number of hours with Yiannikouros during the recent ACS meeting in San Diego. I found him engaging, communicative, and fun...

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