Category → Academia
Chemical health and safety news from the past few weeks:
- On Nov. 20, UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran had a status check with the judge regarding felony charges of labor code violations that led to the death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji. The result of that status check was another status check scheduled for Jan. 10, 2014. Harran’s preliminary hearing concluded on April 26. We’re going on two years since charges were filed on Dec. 27, 2011, and five years since the Dec. 29, 2008, fire.
- On Nov. 1, former UC Davis chemist David Snyder was arraigned on felony charges of reckless disposal of hazardous waste, possession of a destructive device or explosive, possession of materials with intent to make a destructive device, and possession of firearms on university property. The charges relate to an explosion in his campus apartment nearly one year ago. Snyder’s preliminary hearing concluded on Oct. 10. Snyder is scheduled for a trial-setting conference on March 17, 2014, and a jury trial to start on March 24, 2014.
Tweets of the month from @Free_Radical1:
First synthesis lab of the semester, and 3 students not wearing goggles. Lab uses conc. phosphoric/sulfuric acid. Meh, vision is over-rated.
— Free Radical (@Free_Radical1) November 11, 2013
Idea for post-lab question: do a Google Image Search for “sulfuric acid in eyes”, screen cap the first page of hits, email to TA. #tempting
— Free Radical (@Free_Radical1) November 11, 2013
I think our safety committee would have an issue with 450 undergrads synthesizing TNT: http://t.co/xYphFEXxMh
— Free Radical (@Free_Radical1) November 21, 2013
Came across a J Chem Ed lab where the students used lithium aluminum hydride. Um…yeah. And by “yeah”, I mean “no”.
— Free Radical (@Free_Radical1) November 21, 2013
Other items of interest
- The president-elect of ACS, Diane Grob Schmidt, is currently the chair of the Division of Chemical Health & Safety
- NIOSH released new recommendations for controlling worker exposure to nanomaterials
- BioRAFT will hold a webinar on Proactive EHS Management & Communications on Dec. 12
- Residents near an Allenco Energy oil field in Southern California have been complaining for three years about fumes from the site. At Sen. Barbara Boxer’s request, EPA investigators visited the site in October. “I’ve been to oil and gas production facilities throughout the region, but I’ve never had an experience like that before,” [EPA regional administrator Jared] Bumenfeld said. “We suffered sore throats, coughing and severe headaches that lingered for hours.” No word on what’s happened since.
- Also in California, state regulators are supposed to match hazardous material origin paperwork with what arrives at disposal sites. They don’t. “These so-called lost loads include more than 20,000 tons of lead, a neurotoxin; 520 tons of benzene, a carcinogen; and 355 tons of methyl ethyl ketone, a flammable solvent some in the industry call ‘methyl ethyl death.’” (I’m curious to know what chemists think of that nickname. It’s flammable, yes, but it’s not ranked category 1 for any GHS hazard class.)
- And, er, ALSO in California, a waste mystery: “more than 100 metric tons of the banned pesticide DDT and industrial compounds known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, have vanished from one of the country’s most hazardous sites, almost a 90% drop in just five years. Scientists are at a loss to explain the decline across the 17-square-mile site, which sits about 200 feet below the ocean surface and two miles off the Los Angeles County coast.” The chemicals wound up there from industrial waste dumped into sewers.
Fires and explosions
- A Sinopec oil pipeline in China ruptured, then “oil that entered local rain drainage pipes exploded“;
so far reports say that 35 people have died and 166 are injuredMONDAY UPDATE: CNN reported late Friday that 44 people were killed and at least another 135 were injured
- An explosion and fire in a cracking unit at a Chevron refinery in Mississippi killed operator Tonya Graddy
- A massive fire at a Southern Energy facility in Tennessee seems to have started when a methanol tank overflowed and something sparked
- “Accidental ignition” was reportedly the cause of an explosion at Aerojet Rocketdyne in California; one employee is hospitalized
- An employee “moving chemicals” may have caused a spark that led to a fire at Chemical Technology in Michigan; no one was injured but homes, a school, and other businesses were evacuated
Leaks, spills, and other exposures
- A 20,000-gal tank of liquid…something…overpressurized and launched itself through the roof of American Vinyl Company in Florida; one employee died and was found covered in a yellow liquid, while five others were injured
- More than a pound of mercury spilled onto the ground and into a deep well at an Archer Daniels Midland site in Iowa, “when a contractor was pulling a submersible pump from the well and the mercury seal in the pump broke”
- Sulfuric acid leaked from a Solvay plant in California, the cause was a malfunctioning scrubber; 13 people in the area were treated for nose and throat irritation and vomiting
- Chlorine dioxide leaked at Nucor Steel in Arkansas; 18 employees and contractors were treated for exposure
- Two workers at dental implant manufacturer Hiossen in Pennsylvania were pouring nitric acid from one container into another when some sort of reaction occurred; the workers were wearing gloves but no other PPE, and suffered burns to their airways and upper bodies
- Gluteraldehyde spilled at an office building in Texas; the chemical was possibly intended to disinfect health care equipment that cannot be heat sterilized
- Five University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, students got to experience safety showers after a plastic waste container ruptured, likley from “nitric acid mixing with a reducing agent to produce a nitrogen oxide gas“; two containers of ammonium hydroxide also broke
- A mixture of ammonia and sulfuric acid spilled at the University of Connecticut; two students were evaluated for exposure
- A Syracuse University student dropped a bottle of ethylenediamine and got an emergency shower and trip to the hospital for evaluation
- A Melbourne University chemical engineering student “was mixing chemicals when a glass container exploded in front of him“; he suffered cuts to his face and arms
Not covered (usually): meth labs; 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
The preliminary hearing for former University of California, Davis, chemist David Snyder on explosives and weapons charges was scheduled to continue today in Yolo County Superior Court. Snyder’s defense attorney is recovering from surgery, so the hearing was postponed to Oct. 4.
In this week’s issue of C&EN, I have a story on how the University of California is implementing and expanding upon the lab safety settlement agreement that UC made with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office last summer. In short, UC is taking the legal mandates for chemistry and biochemistry departments and expanding them to all research and teaching laboratories as well as to technical areas such as store and stock rooms. Go read the story for details.
Included with the story is a list of links to things such as UC’s new online “Laboratory Safety Fundamentals” training program, UCLA’s personal protective equipment (PPE) inspection checklist, and the system’s new policies on training, PPE, and minors in labs. As part of reporting on the story, I went through the safety fundamentals training and scored 19/20 on the test at the end. If readers are inclined to do the same, be warned that it will take about three hours, at least if you click through the various bits to get additional information.
UC also purchased personal protective equipment for researchers, including 115,000 lab coats. Part of that purchase involved special-ordering flame-resistant, NFPA 2112-rated lab coats from Workrite in small sizes tailored for women. I don’t see them available now on the company’s website, but clearly it at least has patterns. I don’t know whether Workrite is willing to make more, but it’s probably worth a call if you’re looking for some.
Speakers for the open part of the meeting include Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemistry professor and safety committee chair Rick L. Danheiser. I spoke with Danheiser about MIT’s safety program for “Learning from UCLA.” Also on the agenda is William B. Tolman, chair of the chemistry department at the University of Minnesota and one of the people involved in Dow’s academic lab safety partnerships. And then there’s Susan S. Silbey, who is head of anthropology at MIT and studies “the creation of management systems for containing risks, including ethical lapses, as well as environment, health and safety hazards.”
I can’t attend the meeting, but if anyone else who does would like to recap it for the Safety Zone, please let me know!
By Michael Torrice
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge today denied three defense motions that could have dismissed a criminal case against University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. With the rulings going against the defense, the case moves closer to trial. The judge set the next court date for Oct. 3. Harran could go to trial within 60 days of that date.
Harran faces four felony charges of violating the state labor code. The charges stem from the death of research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji after a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab. In November and December, 2012, Judge Lisa B. Lench heard testimony in a preliminary hearing on the case. She ruled in April that there was sufficient evidence to send the case to trial. After the preliminary hearing, the case was sent to Judge George G. Lomeli for trial.
Before today’s hearing, Harran’s attorneys submitted three motions: one asking the judge for a so-called Franks hearing, another called a demurrer, and a third to dismiss the charges based on lack of probable cause. The district attorney’s office replied to each motion, and the defense then responded in writing to those replies.
In court today, the judge started by asking the defense and prosecution to go to chambers to discuss the Franks hearing motion. The hearing is often used to throw out warrants, such as search or arrest warrants, on the grounds that the police or district attorney obtained the warrant using false statements. In this case, the defense argued that Harran deserved such a hearing in part because David Higuera, a senior investigator for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, allegedly omitted key information from his affidavit for an arrest warrant for Harran.
Former University of California, Davis, chemist David Snyder appeared in court on Friday to begin his preliminary hearing on 17 felony charges relating to a January explosion in Synder’s campus apartment.
The charges are for reckless disposal of hazardous waste, possession of a destructive device or explosive, possession of materials with intent to make a destructive device, and possession of firearms on university property. Snyder was released from jail in February on $2 million bail. Snyder was working as a postdoc at the time of the explosion; he’d received his Ph.D. in chemistry from UC Davis in 2011.
The purpose of the preliminary hearing is for a judge to rule on whether there is enough evidence to take the case to trial. Deputy district attorney Martha Holzapfel called eight witnesses:
- Joanne Zekany, UC Davis police detective
- Lee Benson, City of Davis police officer
- Scott Allen, City of Davis police officer
- Paul Henoch, UC Davis police sergeant
- Kevin Skaife, UC Davis police detective
- Daniel Powell, City of Davis police sergeant and member of the Yolo County bomb squad
- Brian Parker, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, & Explosives special agent
- Jason Winger, West Sacramento police sergeant and member of the Yolo County bomb squad
The court got through direct testimony of all eight witnesses on Friday. The judge scheduled the hearing to resume with cross-examination of Jason Winger on Friday, September 6.
Continue reading →
One of the things that came up at the National Academy of Science’s “Safety Culture in Academic Laboratories” committee meeting a couple of weeks ago was the idea that safety compliance leads to a better safety culture.
Many safety professionals say that a culture of compliance is definitely not the best safety culture. Compliance is about box-ticking on things like standardized training and lab inspections. A good safety culture means that people are thinking through, talking about, and paying attention to what they’re doing so they’re actually working safer. Compliance will come from a good safety culture, but a good safety culture will not necessarily arise from compliance.
Others argue, however, that safety culture can be improved through compliance. “It’s worked well for us to develop our safety culture through ensuring compliance,” because the compliance component promoted interactions between researchers and safety professionals, said Robert Eaton, director of environmental health and safety at the University of California, San Francisco.
That only works if those interactions on compliance are positive, I suspect. In an organization in which researchers do not respect or understand the role of safety staff, then compliance is unlikely to do much for the overall safety culture.
But perhaps compliance is an essential step en route to a better safety culture? Maybe organizations need some sort of base-level safety compliance to be able to move people to the next level–maybe people can’t be brought to think critically about what they’re doing when they’re not even bothering with the basics of eye protection and closed-toe shoes. Representatives from Sandia and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories presented what they’re doing to push their organizations beyond what sounded like more of a compliance culture to more of a critical thinking culture. To the academics in the room, “You’re at a state we were at 20 years ago,” said J. Charles Barbour, director of the Physical, Chemical, & Nano Sciences Center at Sandia. Even if compliance culture is a necessary phase, though, perhaps academia can take advantage of the knowledge in industry and government labs to move people faster to critical thinking and safer work practices.
One more meeting tidbit: Stanford University chemistry professor Robert Waymouth‘s suggestion for how to get recalcitrant faculty on board with lab safety programs was to appeal to their egos–in his words, their “desire for excellence”–with the explicit goal of being better than and informing industry rather than the other way around. (Along with, I hope, a desire not to have their lab members get hurt.)
A final note: At the start of the open session, committee chair Holden Thorp noted that topics discussed during information-gathering do not necessarily indicate what will wind up in the final report.
Organic Process Research and Development editor Trevor Laird, founder of Scientific Update, recently penned an editorial on “Safety Culture in Industry and Academia”. I’ll highlight one particular paragraph:
Unfortunately, many companies and most universities are still not using the literature to find out more safety information (and not just MSDSs); for example, Bretherick’s Handbook of Reactive Chemical Hazards is a superb resource to access the literature with respect to safe handling of chemicals, in particular on the issues with scaling up. In the organic synthesis literature, I have seen so many unsafe procedures using perchloric acid/perchlorates and azides/hydrazoic acid, for example, that it is surprising there have not been more explosions in university laboratories. Yet a look through recent issues of Organic Process Research & Development (OPRD) will garner several fine articles which describe exactly the dangers of azides, how to overcome those dangers and to scale up the processes, as well as a book review on this topic.
There’s clearly a challenge here for researchers to figure out what’s a safe procedure and what isn’t. Just because a journal published something doesn’t mean it’s been vetted for safety. Is there a good way to teach students to be appropriately skeptical of literature procedures? Also, aside from using Bretherick’s and OPRD, are there other good resources for people trying to evaluate a procedure for safety?
A Los Angeles County judge today scheduled a hearing for Aug. 26 in the case against University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. The chemist faces four felony charges of violating the state labor code. The charges stem from the death of research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji after a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab.
At the August hearing, the judge will consider arguments on motions that Harran’s attorneys will file before the hearing. In court today, Harran’s attorney, Thomas P. O’Brien, explained that one motion he plans to file is a demurrer motion to dismiss the charges.
O’Brien also said that he plans to ask for a hearing regarding the validity of the original arrest warrant for Harran. Harran’s defense team filed a similar request in July, 2012, that questioned the credibility of a California Division of Occupational Safety & Health investigator who wrote a key report. The defense withdrew that motion when a judge decided to arraign Harran.
Last month, the National Academy of Sciences kicked off a yearlong study of “Safety Culture in Academic Laboratories.” The project is supposed to focus not so much on what should be done to improve safety in academic labs, but on how to get people to actually do it. C&EN’s Jeff Johnson attended and reported on the first meeting of the committee, which is chaired by H. Holden
Thorpe Thorp. Thorpe Thorp transitions at the end of this month from chancellor of the University of North Carolina to provost at Washington University in St. Louis.
The second Safety Culture committee meeting is this week, Wednesday and Thursday (June 26 and 27) at the University of California, Berkeley. The agenda is here. Since it’s local to me, I plan to attend, and I’m sure at least one blog post will result.