CSB video on Texas Tech incident released

The Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board yesterday released its report into last year’s explosion at Texas Tech University; today it released the video to go with that report.

Yes, that Dr. Kemsley is indeed yours truly.

I also wanted to highlight these passages from the report itself. It’s not often that one sees the first two paragraphs spelled out in a public document:

In academia, the PI generally has significant authority over his/her research. At Texas Tech,
the issue of academic “fiefdoms” was evident; in the fiefdom system, a department is broken
into smaller units that have individuals in charge (in this context, “fiefs”), where these
individuals “are nominally subordinate to a person or persons above them, but in practice
do pretty much whatever they want so long as they do not stray too far into some other
fief’s territory.” As such, “each fief has an intellectual or administrative territory over which
he or she reigns.” (McCroskey, 1990, p. 474)

At academic research institutions, PIs may view laboratory inspections by an outside entity
as infringing upon their academic freedom. This was the case at Texas Tech, where EH&S
laboratory safety checks were not viewed as a means to understand how a PIs’ laboratory
practiced safety in their absence. Instead, some PIs saw the notification of safety violations
to the Chair as “building a case” against them, felt that the safety inspections inhibited their
research, and considered recommended safety changes outside their control because they
could not “babysit” their students.

To combat cultural issues (such as fiefdoms) and bring a focus to safety within any given organization,
it is important to ensure that the reporting structure allows for communication
of safety information to those within the organizational hierarchy that have the authority
and resources to implement safety change. Often, the Department Chair is considered the
responsible person for ensuring safety; however, in practice, the Chair holds this managerial
role while at the same time maintaining his/her role as a principal investigator for research;
thus, a potential conflict exists due to the duality of the position. Authority and oversight
of safety at a level above the Chair is a critical component of safety management within an
academic structure.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. I disagree with the Wetterhahn incident being lumped in with the others. Sangji and especially Brown showed a lack of attention to safety protocols. Wetterhahn did not, the MSDS failed her. It wasn’t until after her death that studies were actually conducted that determined the penetrating power of dimethyl mercury through nearly all glove types.

    To this end, MSDSs are largely useless and provide only miniscule amounts of relevant information (see the MSDS for sand if you need to be convinced of this fact). Their primary purpose is to serve as a CYA policy; nothing more. Wikipedia can often provide better information, including pertinent safety concerns.

  2. While I agree that MSDSs are not as useful as they could be, I’d strongly caution against using Wikipedia as your sole source of safety information. I might use Wikipedia as a first pass, but I’d cross check with other sources, such as those listed under “Chemical Safety Resources” in the blog sidebar.