Category → Industry
Yesterday at the Council for Chemical Research meeting, Dow unveiled a publicly-accessible website with a comprehensive set of lab safety training videos plus additional resources. The website is at safety.dow.com. More details on the development of the site are in my C&EN story on the project. One tidbit that didn’t make it into the news story: While the video hosts are professional actors, the supporting roles are played by Dow scientists.
From this week’s issue of C&EN, a letter to the editor from Dow’s William F. Banholzer, Corning’s Gary S. Calabrese, and DuPont’s Pat Confalone discusses whether laboratory safety should have been included in “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences“:
As members of the ACS Presidential Commission on Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences, we challenge Richard N. Zare’s comment on the inappropriateness of including a recommendation about laboratory safety in our report “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences” (C&EN, March 4, page 51). While admitting that safety is important, Zare states the report “should instead have been about preparing graduate students, about the future.”
What is more important in graduate education than ensuring students complete their research as safe and healthy as the day they entered graduate school? A graduate education is the ideal place to instill the mind-set that if you can’t do research while carrying out the best safety practices, then you shouldn’t do it at all. The recommendation to include safety in the final report was unanimously supported by all commission members. …
The facts are unequivocal. Occupational Safety & Health Administration statistics demonstrate that researchers are 11 times more likely to get hurt in an academic lab than in an industrial lab. There have been serious accidents in academic labs in recent years—including fatalities—that could have been prevented with the proper use of protective equipment and safer laboratory procedures.
Most chemistry and chemical engineering graduate students will find employment in industry. As new hires come on board, many companies spend weeks on remedial safety training before new hires are allowed to work in their labs. This clearly shows that the current state of graduate safety education is lacking and that there is a clear need to address it. If the report is supposed to focus on “preparing graduate students, about the future,” how can this not be a relevant topic? …
The “11 times more likely” statistic is inaccurately framed. I followed up on it with the letter authors and Lori Seiler, Dow’s associate director for environmental health and safety in research and development. The numbers actually compare the overall injury and illness rate for academic institutions (including those that might occur, for example, in grounds keeping or a dining hall as well as in laboratories) to Dow’s overall rate. Seiler adds that the injury and illness rate for Dow’s research laboratories is consistent with the company’s overall rate, when calculated per employee.
That said, it seems like it would be wise for the academic community to take this letter to heart. Banholzer, Calabrese, and Confalone are not writing in a vacuum—they see the skills that chemistry graduates lack, and those skills are necessary whether those graduates are going on to work in industry, academia, or elsewhere.
On a related note, yours truly will be heading to Virginia next week for the Council for Chemical Research annual meeting on May 19-21. On the afternoon of Sunday, May 19, I’ll be moderating a panel discussion on the pilot laboratory safety program that Dow began last year with the University of Minnesota, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Texas explosion facts emerge, report Glenn Hess and Jeff Johnson in C&EN this week, although much remains unknown:
According to state and federal records, the retail facility stored some 270 tons of ammonium nitrate and 54,000 lb of anhydrous ammonia for sale to local farmers. …
The facility appeared not to segregate ammonium nitrate, nor did it have automatic sprinkler systems, structural fire barricades, or other mechanisms to limit fires. Whether first responders were aware of what was in the warehouse and its potential for explosion is unknown. …
Ammonium nitrate storage and use are controlled by state and federal regulations. However, it appears that West Fertilizer’s reports to regulators held conflicting information about what materials and quantities were stored, so this small retail distribution facility may not have triggered regulators’ notice. …
Meanwhile, C&EN Deputy Editor-in-Chief Josh Fischman writes in an editorial about a 1947 ammonium nitrate explosion in Texas that killed nearly 600 people, including 27 firefighters, and destroyed 500 homes:
On Oct. 20, 1947, C&EN reported that an expert at the President’s Conference on Fire Prevention said the disaster could have been prevented if “reasonable safety rules had been observed.”
Apparently that hasn’t happened.
There’s also been a West-related dust-up in California. Earlier this year, Texas Governor Rick Perry launched an ad campaign in California and visited the state to try to woo businesses “with promises of low taxes, loose regulations and a hard stance on organized labor,” reported the Los Angeles Times in February. Sacramento Bee cartoonist Jack Ohman subsequently responded to the West Fertilizer explosion with this cartoon. Perry responded that the cartoon inappropriately “mock[ed] the tragic deaths of my fellow Texans and our fellow Americans.” What say you, Safety Zone readers? Was the cartoon appropriately provoking or insensitive?
The Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board last week released an interim analysis of the Aug. 6, 2012 refinery fire at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif. The fire started when a corroded pipe ruptured in a crude oil processing unit. CSB identified several failures that led to the fire: “Missed opportunities to apply inherently safer technologies, a failure to recognize and correct workplace hazards, and the lack of industrial safeguards,” reported C&EN’s Jeff Johnson on Friday. CSB’s report is available here, and a Chevron internal report is available here.
One notable set of images in the CSB report is on pdf page 11. The set includes four photographs taken from across the Bay that show the initial hydrocarbon vapor cloud that formed when the pipe burst, followed by the black smoke from the fire. Amazingly, no one was killed when the leaking material ignited. From CSB’s video about the incident and its findings:
A decision was finally made to begin an emergency shut down of the crude unit. But it was too late. Suddenly, the pipe ripped open. A vapor cloud formed and rapidly expanded, as the large inventory of hydrocarbons in the distillation tower started to vent through the ruptured pipe. The vapor cloud immediately spread over hundreds of feet, engulfing all 19 people who had gathered nearby. The firefighters and operators struggled to escape through the dense hydrocarbon cloud, unable to see. They had to feel their way out, some on their hands and knees. At approximately 6:30 p.m., two minutes after the huge vapor cloud formed, the hydrocarbons ignited. One firefighter was trapped inside a fire engine when it was suddenly engulfed in flames. He radioed for help. … But when he received no response, he assumed everyone else was dead. To escape the inferno, he fled through what witnesses described as a wall of fire.
That fire engine was destroyed by the fire.The Chevron report argues that the white vapor cloud itself was not flammable. Instead, material still leaking from the pipe either auto-ignited or dislodged a light fixture, exposing wiring that could have ignited the stream. Chevron’s internal report also says, “The response and assessment after the discovery of the leak did not fully recognize the risk of piping rupture and the possibility of auto-ignition” (Causal Factor 1, pdf page 21).
Last but not least, here’s CSB’s video:
First up, our thoughts are with everyone in the Boston and West, Texas, areas today.
Secondly, on the fertilizer explosion in West: Although early reports all said that the incident involved anhydrous ammonia, C&EN’s Jeff Johnson reported yesterday that ammonium nitrate was likely the explosive material at West Fertilizer Co. Today, the Los Angeles Times and New York Times both say the facility had ammonium nitrate. The NYT gives numbers: “540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate on the site and 110,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia.” The current toll is 12 confirmed dead, 60 missing, more than 200 injured, and many left homeless. I’m curious whether zoning laws actually allowed that amount of hazardous material so close to a residential area, two schools, and a nursing home. For local coverage, see the Waco Tribune and Dallas Morning News.
Now on to other news from the past few weeks, skipping incidents and focusing other things that I’ve collected:
- Mark at Chemistry Blog posted about his grandfather’s chemical legacy:
A day later I had sorted everything out into three categories: Category 1, mostly harmless (salts, some buffers etc). Category 2, most definitely not harmless (concentrated acids and such like). And the third category I called “What the f*** has he got here!”
- In the Pipeline posted a video, “made at some point by some French lunatics,” that nicely illustrates the hazards of working with chlorine trifluoride
- A debate on whether chemistry demos overly rely on explosions emerged on Twitter; ChemistryWorld gathered the tweets at Storify while Philosophically Distrubed blogged that “chemistry explosions are all bang and no buck“
- It’s been a while since I’ve said this, but it’s worth a reminder: Students and postdocs, be aware that you may not be eligible for workers’ compensation if you’re injured in a lab (reminder courtesy of this story about injured student athletes being responsible for their health expenses)
- NOAA released updated Chemical Reactivity Worksheet software
- Accounts of Chemical Research published a special issue on Environmental Health & Safety Considerations for Nanotechnology
- As OSHA emphasizes safety, long-term health risks fester says the New York Times, in a piece that looks at exposure of furniture workers and n-propylbromide-containing glues
- The Pump Handle covered worker safety provisions in the Senate immigration reform bill
- The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board says that the Hanford nuclear waste treatment plant “has design problems that could lead to chemical explosions, inadvertent nuclear reactions and mechanical breakdowns“
- The April issue of the AIChE’s Process Safety Beacon is out: Have you heard a pressure relief valve chatter?
- The National Academy of Sciences published a review of the Department of Labor’s Site Exposure Matrix Database, which DOL uses to determine compensation for occupational exposure claims at Department of Energy facilities
Post updated April 22, 2013, with a paywall-free link to the workers compensation story.
Okay, a couple of topics to cover today, and they are related.
First, if you haven’t done so already, you should check out The Watch Glass, a Tumblr which contains excerpts from the C&EN Archives. This endeavor is curated by recent JAEP guest poster, Deirdre Lockwood. Although The Watch Glass is only a couple of weeks old, there have already been some very interesting nostalgic snapshots of chemists and chemistry from the past.
This inspired me to have my own peek at the archives and see what interesting things I might find. It didn’t take long. I’d like to highlight one discovery in particular, a small article entitled “Ph.D. outlook: too many for too few jobs.” Hmmm, doesn’t that sound familiar?
Yes, but here’s the kicker. The publication date of this article: August 13, 1979.
“What? 1979? Surely there must be some mistake! That’s a current topic!” I hear you scream. That, or it’s just the voices. You know, the shrill ones in my head.
Okay, the C&EN archives are by subscription only. That is a bit problematic, because not all readers of this blog have access, whether they’re ACS members or not. I had to wait for the library to email a pdf from scanned microfiche (ask your parents or advisor). Fortunately, the article is short, and the abstract, which is viewable to all, contains roughly half the content, from which you can get the gist. It begins:
The fourth in a series of employment reports from the National Science Foundation has been issued. The report concludes that the number of science and engineering Ph.D.’s in the labor force will increase nearly 50% by 1987.
Well, that’s quite a large increase. That’s good, though, right? The result of a productive American education system. U-S-A! U-S-A!!
The only hitch is that the number of traditional employment positions available to these Ph.D.’s will increase only 35% over the same period.
Well, no doubt you’ve had at least a cursory look at the excellent C&EN cover story regarding the 2012 Employment Outlook for chemists. The cover shows a long queue of labcoat-wearing chemists, all presumably in line for the one available position. Cheery.
This story is in contrast to some previous commentary suggesting a recovery may be around some invisible corner, and, as chemists, we can get through it with grim determination. Following that, we’ll be somehow rewarded at the end of the ordeal. All we need to do is say “entrepreneurship” three times, click our heels together, and we’ll all be given a cushy new job in Kansas with all relocation expenses reimbursed.
If you’ve been through layoffs and site closures, as I have, and are, in turn, still connected to former colleagues facing a similar fate—again—or are still unemployed after a protracted period of time, this insistence that things aren’t so bad can be, well, annoying. It suggests the problem is you.
A few months ago, my personal annoyance meter pegged out, and I took ACS CEO and Executive Director Madeleine Jacobs to task for portraying the chemistry job market as rosier than I saw it, and for scolding a mother, a scientist who had gone through a downsizing, for urging her daughter to “not go into science.”
Well, although I’m sure my post had little if anything to do with it, a similar message has gotten through. Facts are presented, and they are cold and hard.
Okay. If you haven’t already, you need to read this cover story in greater detail. It’s broken up into several articles, with titles shown below. Under the heading of each title, I’ve followed with a few of my thoughts upon reading each one. There’s much more information within each article than referred to with my superficial observations. You’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t read each article in their entirety, regardless of where you are in your career journey.
Overall, the full story was a struggle for me to get through—not because of how it’s reported (which is excellent), but because it rings so true. I’ve been there. Others still are there. It’s no fun revisiting.
Anyway, here we go:
UMN is one of the universities benefiting from a program Dow announced last year in which the company is investing $25 million per year for 10 years in research programs at 11 academic institutions. The new safety program is independent of that effort but germinated in the relationship established between Dow and the university, says Frank S. Bates, head of UMN’s chemical engineering and materials science department.
The safety program also extends beyond research programs sponsored by Dow. Central to the effort is a Joint Safety Team (JST) made up of the safety officers from every chemistry and chemical engineering research group. “All of those safety officers will be interacting with Dow and working together to learn best safety practices” from the company, says William B. Tolman, chair of the chemistry department.
At a kick-off meeting a few weeks ago, representatives from Dow and the university agreed that their focus would be on building and sustaining a good safety culture. UMN already seems to have some good procedures and protocols in place, says Pankaj Gupta, senior strategy leader for research and development at Dow. The task is how to raise awareness of those and how to share Dow’s best practices and adapt them to a university setting.
To that end, in the next couple of weeks, Dow and UMN plan to survey chemistry and chemical engineering faculty, postdocs, and students to get their feedback on the current state of laboratory safety and what needs to be improved. Then the program will try to address those concerns by having Dow representatives visit the campus to work with members of the JST. Some or all JST members will also visit Dow, where they will be exposed to things like Dow’s training program, its laboratory audits, and how scientists approach experiments, Gupta says. Repeat surveys will help determine how the program progresses.
Gupta has already surveyed recently-hired Dow employees to get their input on the differences between academic and Dow safety culture. “The number one theme that came up again and again was awareness,” Gupta says, adding that other concerns included specifications for protective equipment, protocols, and pre-task analysis. “When our new employees come in, they spend about 30 hours in mandatory training before they can set foot in the lab to do an experiment,” providing an immediate lesson that safety comes first, Gupta says. Monthly safety meetings and pre-task analysis, in which peer groups discuss the hazards of new procedures and what to do if something goes wrong, also reinforce that safety is an integral part of laboratory experiments.
One of the things the pilot program will work on is creating an environment in which it is both expected and comfortable for people to raise questions and work with each other around hazard assessment, says Lori Seiler, associate director for environmental health and safety in research and development at Dow.
The pilot program will run through the summer. Then Dow and UMN will take stock of the effort and figure out how to proceed. Two UMN alumni now employed at Dow—one chemist and one chemical engineer—are on the core team working with the university.
Neither Dow nor UMN comes to the program with the expectation that the university will duplicate Dow’s safety program, Bates says. “But there’s a lot of room between what we’ve done in the past and what they do at Dow,” he says. “Our intention is to make things better in a university setting.”
Key to the effort is the JST, Tolman adds. “We decided early on that it would be actual students and postdocs who would lead the effort, since they’re the ones in the labs,” he says. And the interdepartmental nature of the team should strengthen it, by providing both a common goal and a wider range of experience.
The team should also help address the problem of high turnover in academic labs, Tolman says. Even as some JST members leave every year, their replacements will learn from and be supported by veteran members. And if the safety officers are trained well, they in turn will do a better job of training new research group members, Tolman says.
“My own safety officer from my group came in my office two days ago and she told me flat-out, ‘This is going to make my job easier,’” Bates adds. He hopes that the JST will add some professionalism to the safety officers and promote their authority in the research groups they serve. “And to have a partner at Dow who they can consult with and make contact with occasionally as a resource? That’s just fantastic,” Bates says.
Bates and Tolman say that their faculty members are enthusiastic about the program, even though it means a big time commitment for the safety officers. “We agree it takes time, but it needs to take time. This is important and a high priority for us,” Tolman says.
And although the safety officers may have some busy weeks ahead, in six months or a year from now, “it’s not going to take any more time. I think it will take less time and less concern on the part of the safety officers,” Bates says.