10 years ago, Sheri Sangji died following a lab fire
Jan16

10 years ago, Sheri Sangji died following a lab fire

Today is the 10th anniversary of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji’s death from injuries sustained in a laboratory fire at the University of California, Los Angeles. From C&EN: Her death pushed some chemists to try to improve academic lab safety culture to prevent similar accidents at their own institutions and beyond. C&EN asked scientists from all corners of the chemistry community to describe their efforts. Read on for their strategies, including incorporating safety into chemistry education, improving training, and developing resources to help people work in a safer manner. Yet large-scale, systemic change remains elusive, as demonstrated by grievous incidents in the decade since Sangji’s death. Postdoctoral researcher Meng Xiangjian died in a hydrogen explosion at Tsinghua University in 2015. Graduate student Preston Brown lost three fingers and damaged his eyes in a nickel hydrazine perchlorate explosion at Texas Tech University in 2010. And postdoc Thea Ekins-Coward lost one of her arms in a hydrogen-oxygen gas mixture explosion at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2016. Adding to that list, in early December one researcher was killed and three others were injured in what seems to have been an explosion of a hydrogen-oxygen gas mixture at the Indian Institute of Science’s Laboratory for Hypersonic and Shock Wave Research. A few weeks later, three students died in an explosion involving sewage treatment experiments at Beijing Jiaotong University, according to local news reports. And those are just the incidents that C&EN knows about that involved deaths or significant permanent injuries. Many others had milder consequences, though they could’ve easily been worse. To learn more about how to improve laboratory safety culture, particularly in academic research labs, read C&EN’s...

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Gas cylinder explosion in India’s premier government lab kills 1 person, wounds 3 more
Dec31

Gas cylinder explosion in India’s premier government lab kills 1 person, wounds 3 more

Contributed by K. V. Venkatasubramanian, special to C&EN. A gas cylinder blast in a laboratory at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) on Dec. 5 killed one researcher and left three others grievously wounded. The researchers were working in the Laboratory for Hypersonic and Shock Wave Research, which was established in the 1970s to study shock waves. Vikram Jayaram, head of IISc’s internal investigation team, told C&EN on Dec. 31 that the explosion involved cylinders containing hydrogen-oxygen mixtures that are used to generate controlled shock waves in a protected, closed container to study granite fragmentation for purposes such as mining and oil recovery. “At this stage of the inquiry, all indications are that adequate safety precautions were employed,” Jayaram said. Manoj Kumar, 32, died instantly. Naresh Kumar, Atulya Uday Kumar, and Karthik Shenoy were hospitalized. All were project engineers employed by start-up Super-Wave Technology, an IISc initiative managed by aerospace engineering professors K. P. J. Reddy and G. Jagadeesh. The company researches shock waves and their applications. Police booked the two professors on Dec. 6 on charges of causing death due to negligence and for causing grievous injuries by acts endangering the lives and personal safety of others. UPDATE: This story was revised on Dec. 31, 2018, to incorporate new information from Vikram...

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“Expertise is deeply gratifying, but it is also a potential trap”
Oct03

“Expertise is deeply gratifying, but it is also a potential trap”

From last week’s issue of C&EN, some lessons learned by ACS President Allison A. Campbell following a bicycle crash in Washington, D.C., and how they relate to laboratory safety: Since I regularly ride near my home in Washington state, I know the trails there quite well, including the overall quality, locations of potholes, and other hazards to be avoided. Additionally, we don’t get much rain, so it did not occur to me to pay any particular attention to puddles on the trail. So as I rode through a large puddle that morning, I was surprised when my front wheel dropped into a deep crater, sending me hurtling over my handlebars. My nose and chin slammed against the trail’s packed-gravel surface. I picked myself up slowly, stunned, stinging, and bleeding profusely. I was, all in all, fortunate. Even though I felt fine, I made a visit to the emergency room. I had neither a concussion nor broken bones: only scrapes, bruises, and two front teeth that were slightly pushed in but easily straightened. … We are all experts of one form or another, whether in the laboratory, the office, the kitchen, or any number of other settings. Expertise is deeply gratifying, but it is also a potential trap when it leads to overconfidence and a false sense of familiarity. Since my accident, I have been thinking about the idea of the “beginner’s mind” popularized by the Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki back in the 1970s. Suzuki observed that, as beginners in any practice, we are fully present and humble as we dedicate ourselves to learning something new and are on guard to grasp things we don’t know or might miss. As we accumulate skill and experience, the intensity of our awareness tends to erode. Suzuki urged us all to nurture our beginner’s mind, regardless of how advanced we might become at our pursuits, and to recognize that we are always beginners. Until recently, I had not thought about Suzuki’s advice as practical safety guidance. Read Campbell’s full column at...

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Hazards of high oxygen concentration, mixing incompatible materials, and more in process safety newsletters
Aug01

Hazards of high oxygen concentration, mixing incompatible materials, and more in process safety newsletters

From AIChE’s “Process Safety Beacon” newsletters: Hazards of high oxygen concentration – “Autoignition temperature (AIT) and minimum ignition energy (MIE) are lowered markedly by higher oxygen content. Substances ignite more readily, burn faster, generate higher temperatures, and are difficult to extinguish.” Mixing incompatible materials in storage tanks – “Understand potential hazardous interactions among different materials that you unload into your plant’s storage tanks. The July 2016 “Beacon” describes the “Chemical Reactivity Worksheet,” a tool which your engineers and chemists can use to help understand chemical interactions.” …but the temperature was below the flash point! – “Because the vessel was operating below the flash point of the contents, the concentration of fuel vapor in the vessel atmosphere was too low for ignition. There should not have been an explosion hazard. But the fuel may not only be present as a vapor (remember dust explosions). The investigation determined that the vessel agitator created a fine mist of liquid droplets (Fig. 2). The tiny droplets were estimated to have an average size of about 1 micron. … Flammability testing demonstrated that the mist could be ignited at room temperature in air – and the mist would be ignited even more easily in a pure oxygen atmosphere.” Are you sure that vessel is empty? – “When returning equipment to service following maintenance, make sure that it is completely clean and does not contain anything that could be incompatible with process materials or operating conditions.” Corroded tanks! – “Holes in tanks can allow toxic or flammable vapors to escape into the surrounding environment. Corrosion can weaken tanks, pipes, or other equipment so they can fail under normal operating conditions.” Incident investigation of a steam pipe failure – “There is a reason for including a team of people with different expertise in an incident investigation… In this incident, the engineers and other experts did not recognize the machine tool marks on the failed pipe, and yet it was immediately obvious to the expert, experienced machinist. His knowledge completely changed the conclusions of the investigation, and was essential for understanding the cause of the...

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Exploding pumps trigger Sciex mass spectrometer alert
Mar29

Exploding pumps trigger Sciex mass spectrometer alert

From Marc Reisch’s story at C&EN: Scientific instrument maker Sciex has told owners of more than 2,000 mass spectrometers to immediately shut down the instruments because a catastrophic failure of turbo pumps manufactured by Agilent Technologies could “result in serious injury or death.” To date, Sciex says, no one has been injured. According to a safety notice dated March 13 for owners of API 4000, API 4000 Qtrap, and API 5000 model mass spectrometers, the rotors of the TV 801 turbo pump can suddenly fragment and be ejected at high speeds. The pumps are used to create a high negative pressure in the instrument’s vacuum chamber. For more, go read Marc’s story or see the information on Sciex’s...

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From the archives: UC Berkeley lab demolished when molten salt bath explodes
Mar01

From the archives: UC Berkeley lab demolished when molten salt bath explodes

More from last week’s trip into the C&EN archives. From Oct. 11, 1982: Molten salt baths cited as lab hazards A University of California, Berkeley, lab has been rebuilt and is ready for use again after being demolished in late July by the explosion of a molten salt bath. Berkeley chemistry and chemical engineering faculty members are concerned that many researchers are unaware of the potential dangers of these commonly used heat-transfer media. The explosion involved a glass polymer-synthesis apparatus immersed in a fused salt bath containing 3 lb of sodium nitrite and 1 lb of potassium thiocyanate. The bath had been heated above 270 °C using a hot plate. The experiment was being conducted in a closed fume hood. The explosion, which Berkeley faculty members estimate had the force of about 1 lb of dynamite, caused more than $200,000 damage to the new lab. The doors of the fume hood were imbedded in a wall 20 feet from the point of explosion and the interior walls of the lab were bulged outward. The chemical engineering graduate student conducting the experiment escaped probable death only because he was bending over to work on a floor vacuum pump at the time of the explosion. Book references to molten salts imply that they may be used freely, according to C. Judson King, dean of Berkeley’s College of Chemistry. “Molten salts are safe – that’s the message,” he says. Some may be, but others clearly are not. Mixtures of salts for heat transfer are common and are marketed commercially. Such commercial mixtures contain, for example, potassium nitrate, sodium nitrate, and sodium nitrite. King points out that, in the commercial mixtures, all of the components are oxidizers. In the mixture that exploded at Berkeley, thiocyanate, a reducer, was included and seems to have triggered the explosion. Mixtures that contain only nitrate and thiocyanate do not seem to explode. The explosive reaction involved nitrite and thiocyanate. The literature is not of much help in elucidating the problem. The dangers of the mixture are not mentioned in the molten salt safety review in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, King says. An extensive literature review carried out by King unearthed a 1945 Soviet publication that reported that some mixtures of potassium nitrite and potassium thiocyanate exploded when heated above 370 °C. “A small community of industrial chemists is aware of the dangers of molten salt baths,” King says. “However, the information does not seem to have filtered down to the rest of the chemical community.” –Rudy Baum, C&EN San...

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