Academic lab safety: One chemist’s observations

Contributed by Brenna Arlyce Brown, who received her PhD in chemistry in 2013 and is currently working in business development for a research funding organization. She is working on setting up a safety consulting business.

A few weeks ago, when reading about the deal that prosecutors made with University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran regarding the lab fire that led to researcher Sheharbano Sangji’s death, I commented on Twitter about how the case affected my graduate research group: “My old PhD boss was sure this can’t happen in our lab-then he found out that I used tBuLi-things soon changed .” This of course sparked questions: “What changed?” “Why didn’t he know that you were using the chemical?” Twitter’s 140 characters were just not enough to answer fully.

When I say, “things changed” I certainly don’t mean that I, or my fellow graduate students, were behaving in an unsafe manner. For my own part, I had a standard operating procedure (SOP) for working with tBuLi, or tert-butyllithium, the pyrophoric compound that Sangji was handling when it ignited. I developed the SOP, in part, from recommendations from the supplier website. I was also trained by more senior graduate students who worked with tBuLi in other groups. Many of my colleagues were required to handle HF, and the safety measures for this compound were well understood by every member of the group, whether they worked with HF or not.

But other potentially dangerous compounds that some of us used were not as well recognized. Did my boss know I was working with tBuLi? He knew I was doing ortho-lithiations, but I was one graduate student out of ten working in an interdisciplinary research group in which students were working on everything from small molecule organic synthesis (my project) to inorganic group 14 nanoparticle synthesis.

Is it reasonable to ask one person to immediately recall the dangers of every compound required for each of these multi-step syntheses? Was it his responsibility to ensure that each of us was operating in a safe manner? After all, we’re all adults and these are our own research projects. Is it really necessary to write regulations, put together the documents, regulate training, and keep record of everything? When I first started in the group, such measures did not get a warm reception. Following the incident at UCLA, it became apparent that they are necessary and that, yes, they are the principal investigator’s (PI’s) responsibility—the PI is the manager.

From then on, I worked as the group’s safety officer, compiling our SOPs and starting the process of ensuring we had documentation for “near-misses” and training. We clarified who was allowed to work with HF. In group meetings, we began talking about safety precautions we were taking with our reactions.

Despite my own efforts to ensure that we had a safe working environment, I found myself frustrated with the university hnvironmental health & safety (EH&S) department. It seemed their attitude was to treat an academic research lab the same as an industrial manufacturing lab. The free form of the academic research environment is a stark contrast to the highly regulated industrial setting, so walking into an academic lab and imposing the same set of regulations is impractical and not likely to get the necessary buy-in required from the researchers.

We saw EH&S staff only once a year for inspection. This became a farce: an inspector who showed up wearing open footwear, demonstrated little understanding of proper chemical storage, and paid little attention to the stills but wanted to root around in our HF fumehood. Any findings during these inspections were not likely to be taken seriously–it is difficult to accept the imposition of change by individuals who clearly don’t understand the environment they are inspecting. There was also no consequence if we did not address the findings. EH&S never followed up.

The department I worked in has since placed an EH&S advisor within the department. This person has worked with researchers to understand the challenges of the research world and help identify the barriers to establishing a safe working environment. Learning from the researchers what it is like to work in a university chemistry lab and getting buy-in from the faculty before implementing blanket changes creates more support for the work.

There is more to academic safety than just writing a few SOPs, insisting on safety glasses and lab coats, and knowing where the emergency eye wash station is. Time and money will always be a factor. It is time consuming to compile the safety policies for the group, to ensure all documentation is up to date, and that there is compliance. Even as passionate as I was when acting as the group’s safety officer, I still had my own research to do. In academia there is a very high staff turnover rate making it difficult to ensure consistency as new students come in and older students graduate. I happily offer my services to academic researchers looking develop safety protocols and systems in their labs, but what professor has the money to spare to hire a consultant to help them?

There are still many challenges, but the fact that we are talking about these challenges signals that the culture is changing. The changes I observed in my own group and in my own university all signal that as a community we are working in a positive direction for the safety of all employees in academic research. What happened at UCLA could have happened in any other academic research lab. Let’s prevent another tragedy from occurring.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. It is good to hear that Sheri’s death and all that followed opened some eyes. I hope other labs reacted similarly to Dr. Brown’s lab.

    Every EH&S Manager should think seriously about her statement. This is not the first time that cynicism has been directed toward EH&S.

    I invite Dr. Brown to join the group of chemists who are working every day to make a change – join CHAS.

  2. I can’t stand the blaming of Harran for this accident, she had at least 4 years of chemical training as an undergrad…So an undergrad degree is not chemical training these days? Why don’t we work on that instead of pissing all over a man who figured someone having 4 or more years of experience in chemistry knew how to handle a simple pyrophoric. Not his fault undergrad chemistry has become so dumbed down. Blame safety culture that took the conc. acids, pyrophorics and explosives out of undergrad labs, leaving students woefully unprepared to deal with anything more dangerous than sodium bicarbonate and acetic acid after undergrad.

  3. @asdasdsaasdsda — So shouldn’t faculty know what undergraduate lab curricula cover, and train staff and graduate students appropriately to compensate?

  4. I think part of the problem is that many (not all) EHS personnel have no more than a minor in chemistry (from a background standpoint). They have no idea what organic research is all about. And they look for a prescription or a checklist for every situation.

    In a perfect world, I think every chemistry student should have some meaningful internships in a well-run industrial lab. It is an eye-opener. I worked one summer at duPont Experimental Station and four more in Army Research (Detrick and Edgewood). As a result, I was much more safety-aware than the majority of my fellow students.

    Nothing makes you more serious about safety than working with substances which were designed to kill you. :-)

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