Improving laboratory explosion protection

A guest post by Ralph Stuart, secretary of the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety (DCHAS).

A member of the DCHAS e-mail list recently pointed out to me a story in the Milwaukee Sentinel’s archives about a laboratory explosion in 1957. The story reported:

Waukesha, Oct. 25 (AP) A Carroll College senior was reported in good condition Friday despite suffering injuries that led to the loss of his left eye after fluid, said to have been rocket fuel, blew up in his face. … The exploding test tube sent slivers of glass into [the student’s] face. One of the pieces pierced his left eye. Afterwards, several college sources said the fluid was rocket fuel, but no one in authority would comment on the reports. …

Dr. Robert Steele, college president, and Arthur A. Sunier, chemistry professor, both said [the student’s] experiment was “entirely unauthorized.”

“It was in no way connected with his class work,” said Steele.

The reason the DCHAS reader pointed out this story was that it is has eerie parallels to the 2010 Texas Tech University explosion that triggered the U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board review of academic laboratory safety, 50 years after the Carroll College incident. In both cases, the work with energetic materials was outside the scope of what faculty expected to be conducted in their labs and didn’t include appropriate protective equipment for the work being conducted.

Sometimes, this repetition of historic accidents can discourage laboratory safety advocates by suggesting that we are fighting a labor of Sisyphus. One hopeful sign for people engaged in this work is a paper in the latest issue of the Journal of Chemical Health and Safety. The paper, “Protective equipment for small-scale laboratory explosive hazards. Part 2. Shielding materials, eye and face protection” presents basic research in understanding the precautions that should be implemented when the risk of a laboratory explosion is prudent to prepare for (2015, DOI: 10.1016/j.jchas.2014.11.004).

Explosion damage to an aluminum bath. Credit: J. Chem. Health Saf.

Explosion damage to an aluminum bath. Credit: J. Chem. Health Saf.

The paper notes that:

There is a significant quantity of published information on the hazard presented by bare and metal-encased charges, and the level of shielding required to protect against this threat. Unfortunately, the corresponding data for charges encased in glass or ceramic materials, such as those found in standard laboratory apparatus, are more limited.

The authors provide pictures and videos of the results of lab scale explosions and their impact on safety glasses, face shields and safety screens. The authors also provide guidance for selecting among these alternatives for working with various quantities of explosive materials. As evidenced by the articles noted above, this information fills a long standing need for the laboratory safety community. For this reason, I appreciate the work conducted by the authors and their willingness to share their work.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. Again, too much focus on PPE when working with explosive materials. Part 1 of the cited article by Murray, Jenkins, and Miller should also be considered (Protective equipment for small-scale laboratory explosive hazards. Part 1: Clothing for hand and body protection Note in particular the authors’ conclusion that “It is clear that whilst the level of damage at the 1.0 g scale can be much reduced, full protection is not credible with any of the PPE tested in this paper.”

    Communication, training, and reduced scale (<0.2 grams – the SOP at Texas Tech prior to the explosion there set a 0.1 gram maximum scale limit that was not followed) are essential to injury prevention, PPE may be woefully inadequate.

  2. I’m writing a novel about a chemist and I appreciated your article about safety in the laboratory.

    I strive to add realism to my work. In recent years, I have taken a personal interest in the global proliferation of chemical weapons issue. Aptly entitled, “The Chemist”, my book follows the trials and tribulations of a young chemist who has to deal with her willing participation in the development of such a weapon.

    Perhaps someone could describe the dangers of creating these terrible weapons in a lab situation, and what precautions they would use for protection. I would share gladly my work with anyone who would like to read it.

    Alan J.Field