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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.
University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran was arraigned today on four felony charges of violating the state labor code. A Los Angeles County judge entered a not guilty plea on Harran’s behalf for all four counts. The charges stem from the death of research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji from injuries sustained in a 2008 fire in the professor’s lab
Another judge ruled last month that Harran should face trial on three charges, each citing a violation of a separate state safety regulation: failure to correct unsafe workplace conditions and procedures in a timely manner, failure to require work-appropriate clothing and personal protective equipment, and failure to provide chemical safety training to employees. The Los Angeles County District Attorneys added a fourth charge that essentially expanded on the clothing and protective equipment charge.
The new charge is for violating occupational safety regulation 3383(a), which states “body protection may be required for employees whose work exposes parts of their body, not otherwise protected as required by other orders in this article, to hazardous or flying substances or objects.” The original charge cited part (b) of that regulation: “Clothing appropriate for the work being done shall be worn. Loose sleeves, tails, ties, lapels, cuffs, or other loose clothing which can be entangled in moving machinery shall not be worn.”
At the arraignment today, Harran’s attorney, Thomas P. O’Brien, said Harran would not enter a plea because the defense team planned to file a demurrer motion to dismiss the charges. Deputy District Attorney Craig W. Hum argued that the defense could file the motion after the plea. The judge then entered the not guilty plea for Harran.
The case was assigned to a new courtroom and the next court date was set for June 27. The June 27 appearance will be a status update to see how ready both sides are for a trial.
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.
Chemical health and safety news from the past couple of weeks.
First up, on the West Fertilizer explosion in Texas:
- The Chemical Safety Board launched a Facebook page for its investigation into the West Fertilizer explosion
- Sustained Outrage posted about various familiar issues surrounding the disaster
- At a Texas House committee hearing, many agencies
many agenciessaid “not my job” regarding lack of oversight and allowing large quantities of ammonium nitrate to be stored near a residential area
- And the Center for Public Integrity reported on concerns about the pace of CSB investigations
- In honor of Workers’ Memorial Day, the National Council for Occupational Safety & Health released “Preventable Deaths: The Tragedy of Workplace Fatalities” and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention devoted its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report to worker concerns.
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its final count of fatal work injuries in 2011: 4,693, “the third lowest annual total since the fatal injury census was first conducted in 1992.” That’s 3.5 fatal injuries per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers.
- The Berkeley Science Review published a long article on the lab safety changes in the University of California system in the wake of Sheri Sangji’s death
- The May issue of the Process Safety Beacon looks at “Pressure relief valve bonnets–to plug or not to plug?“
- A Florida high school student experimented with combinging aluminum foil and toilet bowl cleaner in a water bottle on campus before school. She subsequently was expelled from school and charged with possessing and discharging weapons and a destructive device on school grounds. Yes, gas pressure built up in the bottle so it exploded, but really, it seems ridiculous to expel a student for this. From all reports, she was just curious and didn’t intend to harm anyone.
- Janssen chemist Ramineh Behbehanian, on the other hand, perhaps did want to harm people by putting rubbing alcohol-contaminated orange juice onto the shelves of a San Jose, Calif., Starbucks. An alert customer saw her do it.
- Norway orders BP safety review after leak
- The Las Vegas Sun looked back at a 1988 explosion at ammonium perchlorate manufacturer Pacific Engineering Production Co. of Nevada that killed two people and injured more than 300 (C&EN archive story here, paywall-free link!
coming), and explored what hazardous materials plants are in the area today
- And WSYR in New York looked back at a fire from a flame test demonstration that left a teacher and three students badly burned
- U.K. authorities fined SAFC Hitech $190,000 for a 2012 incident in which trimethylindium caught fire and badly burned one worker
Fires and explosions:
- Three workers were killed in an explosion in a fireworks factory in India
- Also in India, and explosion and fire from some sort of chemical transfer at Ganesh Plasto injured one
- A fire at a Formosa Plastics plant in Texas involved ethylene and injured at least nine people (another story says a dozen)
Leaks, spills, and other exposures:
- One worker died and six others were treated for exposure after breathing hydrogen sulfide fumes while cleaning pipes at a wastewater treatment plant at the Port of Tampa, in Florida
- Something “in the ‘cyanide’ family” spilled at metal finisher Kocour in Illinois, sending one person for medical treatment
- Phenol spilled at a medical clinic in Iowa, sending 13 people to two local hospitals, and also at a U.K. high school
- Hydrogen peroxide leaked from equipment at the College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering in New York
- Chemicals stored by a deceased fireworks enthusiast in a residential shed led to the evacuation of 49 neighboring houses while the bomb squad investigated
Not covered (usually): meth labs; ammonia leaks; incidents involving floor sealants, cleaning solutions, or pool chemicals; transportation spills; things that happen at recycling centers (dispose of your waste properly, people!); and fires from oil, natural gas, or other fuels.
Former University of California, Davis, chemist David Snyder had a second prehearing conference today regarding charges of possessing and intending to make explosives on campus. The judge scheduled Snyder’s preliminary hearing to start on July 26, says Michael Cabral, assistant chief deputy district attorney in the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office.
As part of the case, the prosecution wants to review Snyder’s medical records, a move that Snyder opposes. The judge scheduled a hearing on that matter for May 30.
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?
C&EN’s Michael Torrice reported earlier today:
Chemistry professor Patrick G. Harran will face trial on three felony counts of violating California state labor code, a Los Angeles County judge ruled today. The case stems from a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab [at the University of California, Los Angeles,] that led to the death of research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji.
See yesterday’s post for background.
Other coverage (will update as I see more):
- Los Angeles Times (reporter in courtroom)
- Westwood-Century City Patch (reporter in courtroom)
- Can’t quite tell if this reporter was in the courtroom: Reuters
- Media outlets working from secondary information: Associated Press shorter & longer; LA Weekly; Chronicle of Higher Education; Science Careers; Nature News Blog; UK Daily Mail; The Scientist
- In the chemistry blogosphere: Chemjobber first & second (with many comments); Doing Good Science; ChemBark (also with many comments)
- Chemistry Reddit
- UCLA chancellor’s statement
- National Law Journal
- Chemistry World
Preliminary hearing for Patrick Harran in #SheriSangji case: Motion to dismiss or reduce the charges
University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran returns to court tomorrow to conclude a preliminary hearing on felony charges of labor code violations. The charges stem from the death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji from injuries sustained in a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab. The judge hearing the case is expected to rule whether to send the case forward to trial.
The fire started when Sangji was handling a pyrophoric compound, tert-butyllithium, which ignites spontaneously in air. She was trying to transfer the reagent by syringe when the plunger came out of the barrel, exposing the solution to air. The tert-butyllithium ignited and Sangji’s clothes caught fire. Several aspects of the incident indicate that Sangji did not know how to handle the material safely and was not prepared for something to go wrong.
The purpose of the preliminary hearing is for the prosecution to present evidence to a judge, who will decide if there is enough to take the case forward to a trial. The court heard testimony in November and December last year. Recaps of the testimony can be read here: Day one, two, three, four, five, and six.
At the end of a preliminary hearing, it is standard for the defense to ask the judge to dismiss or reduce the charges. In this case, Harran’s attorneys asked to file their arguments in writing. Over the last few months, Harran’s attorneys filed a motion “to dismiss; or, in the alternative, to reduce felony charges to misdemeanors.” The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office responded to that motion. Then Harran’s attorneys replied to the response. The judge is expected to rule on Friday whether the case will go to trial with the original charges, the case will go to trial with reduced charges, or the case is dismissed.
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.