Comparing safety culture in industry to academia
Jan21

Comparing safety culture in industry to academia

Chemjobber had a guest post last week by Alex Goldberg, who started working as a pharmaceutical process chemist six months ago. He says, in part: And we have regular meetings about safety: we discuss near-misses and incidents and accidents (and we learn about the differences between them in safety training) that occurred in the previous month. And absolutely everyone wears his or her labcoat and safety glasses. Reflecting back on my academic training, I think about what universities can do to make safety an ongoing conversation, not just an onboarding exercise or an annual seminar. If we take long-hours and limited resources as a given in academic Chemistry departments — a topic which merits another discussion entirely — what can be done to build a culture of safety around those constraints? What does your lab and department do to accomplish this goal? Examples,...

Read More
Chinese university lab safety–not that different from the U.S.?
Jan20

Chinese university lab safety–not that different from the U.S.?

From Chemistry World, a look at the safety culture of Chinese university labs following the death of postdoctoral researcher Xiangjian Meng from a hydrogen explosion: The Tsinghua accident is not an isolated incident. On 5 April 2015, a gas explosion killed one graduate student and injured four others in a chemistry lab at the China University of Mining and Technology located in the eastern Chinese city of Xuzhou. On 22 September 2015, a Peking University chemistry building caught fire after a hydrogen tank leaked. The fire did not result in any injuries. A fire that broke out at a lab at the Beijing University of Chemical Technology last Monday was blamed on ageing equipment. I found it interesting that people interviewed for the Chemistry World story said that lab safety culture is better elsewhere–but several of the examples cited as problems in China can certainly be said about many U.S. labs as well: The fact that Meng was working alone points to a poor safety culture at the lab. There should be at least two people working in a lab in case of an accident, Luo tells Chemistry World. [Note: Chemistry World does not cite a source for Meng working alone, and I have not heard that from the university] … Yin says that awareness of lab safety and training is very weak among Chinese researchers. She notes that researchers are sometimes reluctant to wear gloves and safety glasses to allow them to work without hindrance. … Wang Xiaojun, a professor of environmental chemistry at Guangzhou-based South China University of Technology, says that the lack of funding for lab infrastructure has hampered some lab heads’ efforts to make their workplaces safer. Researchers are left sometimes having to use their own funding to install safety equipment. This can leave some lab heads having to choose between safety and their own research. … But Luo says, besides research grants, most universities in China were allotted flexible budgets for infrastructure. ‘The problem is lab safety has never been prioritised.’ … One day before the Tsinghua accident, the education ministry urged universities and schools to carry out safety inspections. After the accident, the ministry launched a nationwide lab safety examination. But Luo says that campaign-style safety examinations do no good for lab safety. ‘The most likely action during nationwide [safety] inspections is to ensure the reliability of instruments, without considering the dynamic and flexible demands of research,’ Luo says. He suggests integrating safety training with experimental demands and lab safety management....

Read More
Lessons from methanol flash fires
Jan19

Lessons from methanol flash fires

From a letter to the editor in this week’s C&EN: Yet another methanol flash fire has occurred with injuries when a high school teacher was demonstrating the “rainbow” flame test (C&EN, Nov. 9, 2015, page 6). While “rainbow” demonstrations have been conducted safely many times, they become dangerous if a large bottle of methanol is brought back to the demonstration to add more methanol. This same mistake has been repeated many times with catastrophic results. … The big lesson learned is that undergraduates (tomorrow’s teachers, graduate students, scientists) need a solid safety laboratory education—the long-term fix. Today’s undergraduates get safety training, not a safety education. Safety education teaches the “why” behind hazards so the student can understand and learn to respect the need for safety. Understanding the “why” teaches students the basis for safety measures and rules—making them more likely to use and follow them. Safety education teaches the student to think critically about safety. More than once, I have heard, “There’s not room in the curriculum” for safety education. We need to rethink our priorities, values, and ethics. Among various topics in chemistry, safety is the only one that can result in serious injuries or death if it is not taught or valued. Safety education needs to be included in the chemistry curriculum from the very beginning, teaching principle-based safety: Recognize hazards, assess the risks of hazards, minimize the risks of hazards, and prepare for emergencies. Many of our science teachers only take a few courses in chemistry, so we need to get to them early and often to give them as much of a safety education as we can before they move on to other majors—it is clear that flammable hazards need to be understood by these students. Read the full letter here. Find safety resources for demos and student experiments at...

Read More
Update on death at Tsinghua University
Jan07

Update on death at Tsinghua University

From my story in Monday’s issue of C&EN: “We are deeply saddened by the accident and loss of a good postdoc scientist,” Tsinghua chemistry department chair Xun Wang told C&EN. “According to the investigation of the government police department as well as our own investigation, the tragedy was caused by the accidental explosion of a hydrogen gas cylinder,” Wang said. As of Dec. 30, the blast’s cause was unclear. According to a post by the Beijing Administration of Work Safety, a Beijing vice or deputy mayor led some sort of safety inspection at Beijing University of Chemical Technology on Dec. 30. From the google translation of the post: Wang Ning, deputy mayor stressed that one should draw profound Tsinghua University “12.18” explosion lessons, school leadership to further enhance the understanding of the management of dangerous chemicals laboratory. Colleges and universities are the place to nurture talent, but also to pay attention to people’s safety, especially teaching laboratories and research laboratories using hazardous chemicals, storage security is a top priority. Second, the schools to organize the pre-holiday special inspection responsibility to the people, the use of hazardous chemical storage to conduct a comprehensive clean-up, focus on examination of system implementation, test personnel training, check targeted contingency plans and emergency response, security. Third, the City Board of Education in accordance with the requirements of the Ministry of Education on College lab safety management, strengthen safety supervision system in Universities, in close coordination with safety supervision, public security departments, from management mechanism, team building, development of the system, rating, personnel training and risk analysis, study and formulate targeted measures; summing up and promoting some good experience and practice, work together to promote the city’s university laboratory safety management of hazardous chemicals, and strive accident does not occur. So 1) colleges and universities need to pay attention to people’s safety, especially in teaching and research labs; 2) there will be lab clean-ups and inspections, and 3) education authorities are going to pay closer attention to safety. My question: Will any of the government or university responses lead to a culture that fosters working safely as opposed to a culture of compliance? h/t to C&EN’s Jean-François Tremblay for the Beijing Administration of Work Safety...

Read More
AAAS rescinds election of Patrick Harran as a fellow
Dec23

AAAS rescinds election of Patrick Harran as a fellow

Yesterday, the American Association for the Advancement of Science announced that it would rescind its election of University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran as a AAAS fellow. The AAAS statement says: The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today announced that its Section on Chemistry has voted not to move forward with the nomination of Patrick Harran as a Fellow, following re-review of his nomination. On December 18, the AAAS Council approved the Chemistry Section steering group’s request to conduct a complete re-evaluation of Dr. Harran’s nomination after it became apparent that an initial review of nomination materials had not included all relevant information. Members of the nomination reviewing committee recently became aware of a 2008 case involving the death of a technician in the UCLA laboratory of Dr. Harran. The AAAS Council Subcommittee on Fellows, which is empowered to review the nomination and election process, is also considering changes to the Fellow review process for subsequent nominations. The statement is confusing, because in AAAS’s Nov. 16 fellows election announcement, it said that the fellows–including Harran–had already been elected. Now it’s saying that it won’t move forward with the nomination. If Harran was already elected, wouldn’t AAAS have to revoke that, not just put a halt to the nomination? I asked AAAS director of news and information Gavin Stern to clarify, but I haven’t heard back yet. Update with a clarification from Stern: Dr. Harran’s case is unprecedented under AAAS bylaws and the history of AAAS elected Fellowship, which dates back to 1874. Dr. Harran was nominated independently by three existing AAAS Fellows and then ratified by elected members of the AAAS Council. Under our bylaws, this process is member-driven without interference or influence by AAAS staff. On December 18, the Chemistry Section steering group received approval from the Council for a complete re-evaluation of Dr. Harran’s nomination. They decided not to move forward — therefore Dr. Harran will not be installed as a...

Read More
Postdoctoral researcher killed in explosion at Tsinghua University
Dec21

Postdoctoral researcher killed in explosion at Tsinghua University

A chemistry postdoctoral researcher was killed in some sort of explosion or fire at Tsinghua University on Friday, according to a post by the university on the microblogging site Weibo. If other media reports are correct, the deceased postdoc is Xiangjian Meng, and he joined the university in 2014 after many years at the Shanghai Institute of Technical Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences completing his Ph.D. at Nanyang Technology University in Singapore. The university has not released any details about the incident. A couple of early news reports mentioned tert-butyllithium as a possible culprit and another referenced an “organic catalysis experiment.” Chinese media reports on Sunday pointed to hydrogen as the culprit, so perhaps it was a hydrogenation reaction? Various stories (translations courtesy of Google): Nature, Dec. 18 – Postdoc dies in lab fire at Tsinghua University Daily Mail, Dec. 18 – Terrifying moment thick smoke billows out of university chemical lab as toxic explosion killed postdoctoral researcher in China Shanghai Daily, Dec. 18 – Postdoctoral researcher killed in lab blast at Tsinghua University on.cc, Dec. 18 – Tsinghua University postdoctoral laboratory explosion and fire killed Staff Xinhuanet, Dec. 19 – Tsinghua University lab explosion occurs in hydrogen experiment Shanghaiist, Dec. 19 – Tsinghua University explosion kills researcher as lab experiment goes wrong ScienceNet, Dec. 19 – Tsinghua University postdoctoral laboratory fire killed CRI, Dec. 19 – Tsinghua University Lab Explosion Occurs in Hydrogen Experiment China Daily, Dec. 19 – Department of Tsinghua University postdoctoral do chemistry experiments with hydrogen explosion and Student killed in chemistry lab blast Asia One, Dec. 20 – China uni student killed in chemistry lab blast Ecns.cn, Dec. 20 – Tsinghua University lab explosion occurs in hydrogen experiment China News, Dec. 20 – Tsinghua University chemistry lab explosion track: Postdoctoral do experiments with hydrogen gas explosion Chengdu Business Daily, Dec. 20 – Tsinghua University chemistry laboratory building explosion killed a postdoctoral Guizhou Daily, Dec. 20 – Department of Chemistry, Tsinghua University laboratory explosion killed 32-year-old postdoctoral spot cnBeta, Dec. 21 – Tsinghua postdoctoral were killed: explosives non-tertiary-butyl lithium – Google’s translation is pretty mangled, but seems to say that Meng’s family posted on Weibo denying that tert-butyllithium was involved but giving no other incident information (this looks like it might be the Weibo page) China Daily, Dec. 21 – Ministry of Education reminds education departments of safety And a thread on reddit chemistry: Wow. Fire/Explosion leads to PostDoc death at Tsinghua University Update: I have heard from a reader that there were two people named Xiangjian Meng at Tsinghua. The deceased Meng was a postdoc who had done his Ph.D. work at...

Read More