The principles of “inherently safer” processes or experiments
Jul23

The principles of “inherently safer” processes or experiments

The U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board released a video a couple of weeks ago on “Inherently Safer: The Future of Risk Reduction.” Although the video stems from CSB and National Research Council investigations into the BayerCropScience explosion in 2008, the principles of inherently safer processes can also be applied to research-scale experiments. As outlined in the video, those principles are: Minimize – reduce the amount of hazardous material in the process Substitute – replace one material with another that is less hazardous Moderate – use less hazardous process conditions, such as lower pressure or temperature Simplify – design processes to be less complicated and therefore less prone to failure “It’s not a specific technology or a set of tools and activities, but it’s really an approach to design and it’s a way of thinking,” said Dennis Hendershot, a consultant with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Center for Chemical Process Safety, at a 2009 CSB meeting. “The safety features are built right into the process, not added on. Hazards are eliminated or significantly reduced rather than controlled or managed.” The video goes on to say that the goal of inherently safer process design is not only to prevent an accident but to reduce the consequences of an accident should one occur. A research lab experiment gone wrong, of course, is unlikely to affect the surrounding community in the way that a manufacturing incident might. But research lab incidents have cost millions of dollars and caused personal injuries in the form of lost eyes, hands, and fingers; burns and other unspecified injuries; and deaths of several researchers (for more, see the Laboratory Safety Institute’s Memorial...

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The Safe Chemicals Act
Jul18

The Safe Chemicals Act

Little fanfare accompanied the introduction in April of the Safe Chemicals Act by the US Senate. The Act was designed, according to Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), to “upgrade America’s outdated system for managing chemical safety.” Ostensibly, the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 is a risk-based bill that modernizes and addresses each of the core failings of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. Under the bill, chemical companies would need to demonstrate the safety of industrial chemicals, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would be required to evaluate safety based on the best available science. Unlike previous efforts to update TSCA, this bill would require chemical companies to develop and submit a minimum data set for each chemical they produce. EPA would then have the full authority to go back to manufacturers and request additional testing if there was any doubt about the safety of a chemical. Chemicals would be prioritized based on criteria intended to identify “immediate risk.” It was nice that actress Jessica Alba was rolled out to Capitol Hill to support the bill on behalf of consumers, but who is this law designed to protect? Is it household consumers? If so, will the testing be on the regulated components or on finished products? I’m sure many of the “industrial” chemicals that will be targeted by the law are either intermediates that never see a store’s shelves, or are present in low concentrations in consumer goods. And what about mixtures? Additive or synergistic effects? I’m not questioning the need for TSCA reform, just how to make it effective. If we’re going to open this can of worms again, let’s decide on a real objective before putting an expensive new law in...

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Chemical Safety Board releases draft report on DuPont accidents
Jul11

Chemical Safety Board releases draft report on DuPont accidents

Last week, the Chemical Safety Board released its draft report on its investigation into a spate of three accidents over January 22-23, 2010, at a DuPont plant in Belle, West Virginia. The three incidents involved releases of of methyl chloride, fuming sulfuric acid (oleum), and phosgene; plant worker Carl Daniel Fish was sprayed on the chest and face with phosgene and died the next day. The report is 172 pages long and I haven’t read beyond the executive summary, but here are CSB’s bullet points on the root causes: Methyl chloride incident (January 22, 2010, 5:02 AM) DuPont management … approved a design for the rupture disc alarm system that lacked sufficient reliability to advise operators of a flammable methyl chloride release. (Jyllian notes: The plant released 2,000 lbs of methyl chloride over five days before the leak was identified.) Oleum release incident (January 23, 2010, 7:40 AM) Corrosion under the insulation caused a small leak in the oleum pipe. Phosgene incident (January 23, 2010, 1:45 PM) DuPont’s phosgene hazard awareness program was deficient in ensuring that operating personnel were aware of the hazards associated with trapping liquid phosgene in transfer hoses. DuPont relied on a maintenance software program that was subject to changes without authorization or review and did not automatically initiate a change-out of phosgene hoses at the prescribed interval, nor did they provide a back-up process to ensure timely change-out of aging hoses. DuPont Belle’s near-miss reporting process was not rigorous enough to ensure that the near failure of a similar phosgene transfer hose, just hours prior to the exposure incident would be immediately brought to the attention of plant supervisors and managers. DuPont lacked a dedicated radio/telephone system and emergency notification process to convey the nature of an emergency at the Belle plant, thereby restricting the ability of personnel to provide timely and quality information to emergency responders. Here’s CSB’s animation of the phosgene release: Ken Ward Jr covers the chemical industry for West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette and attended last week’s press conference–here are his stories so far on the draft report: CSB: DuPont needs to ‘re-examine’ safety practices Phosgene leak could have crossed river, CSB says (a similar post appears on the paper’s “Sustained Outrage” blog) More from the CSB’s DuPont press conference DuPont responds to Chemical Safety Board report CSB: DuPont ignored safer phosgene plans The DuPont plant is in the same area as the Bayer CropScience plant where two workers were killed in an explosion and fire in 2008. After the Bayer CropScience incident, CSB recommended that local authorities develop a regional chemical plant safety program. Ward also reports that little progress has...

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More effects of the Japan earthquake and tsunami
Mar15

More effects of the Japan earthquake and tsunami

“CR” left a comment earlier today on my last post, criticizing me for not having updated since Friday. Mea culpa. Over the weekend, it became clear that simply updating was not going to be enough, and I felt that there was little I could say that wasn’t already being widely reported elsewhere. I was also busy reporting on the effects of the quake on Japanese universities and research institutions. That story just went live, Heavy Damage To Japan Research, and complements Jean-François Tremblay‘s story yesterday on Earthquake Rocks Japan’s Chemical Industry. We’ll both be updating those pieces as appropriate for C&EN’s March 21 print issue. Jeff Johnson is covering the events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. There are two other things I’d like to highlight today about the disaster in Japan. One is this set of photos on the Boston Globe’s Big Picture blog. It really hit home the human element of the tragedy for me. The other is Chemjobber‘s post Fukushima Daiichi: on the skyline. CJ highlights the undoubtedly valiant effort put in by a small group of people–the New York Times says 50–to try to regain control of the nuclear reactors. They are heroes. Update: The NYT has a bit more on the dangers faced by the remaining plant...

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Does safety harm the US chemical industry?
Apr21

Does safety harm the US chemical industry?

C&EN has a meeting with its advisory board this week. One of our advisers is In the Pipeline blogger and Vertex Pharmaceuticals chemist Derek Lowe, and he blogged on Monday looking for feedback on C&EN that he could bring to us. I was going through the comments this morning–yes, we are always open to constructive criticism–and at the very end, a few safety-related responses emerged: Anonymous But I regret the lack of proper investigation into the reasons why costs are so much lower in other countries. When my enviromental health and safety officer insists that I perform calorimetry on every step of a route which uses a material containing an aromatic nitro group, tells me to reduce my usage of chlorinated solvents and asks me to separate and bag/bottle all my waste into five different streams and fill in forms in triplicate to get rid of each one, is it any surprise that I choose to send that work to India where they’ll do it cheaper and quicker than I can. No questions asked about environmental standards. No questions asked about accidents in those labs. Should I feel guilty that I know some were hospitalised last year as the result of lab fires and an uncontrolled exothermic reaction or should I just enjoy the cost savings? AlchemX Our foreign competitors are brutally efficient. They barely waste any time during school or on the job that does not increase their productivity. If that means discarding safety, I think they will do it. … The outsourcing is unstoppable as far as I can tell. They are faster, cheaper and even know more a lot of the time. Because they spent a lot less time becoming politically correct citizens and much more time becoming economically competitive. A probably different Anonymous But I actually don’t think they have to discard safety although I’m sure some do. They just have to get rid of the mindless junk of red tape that most big companies impose on their research staff, none of which makes us safer, just less competitive. What do you think, readers? Do U.S.–and, I would think, Canadian and European–environmental health & safety requirements hinder competitiveness? If so, is that an appropriate price to pay to ensure worker and environmental well-being? Is there a better way to do it that would maintain safety but not be a drain on...

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More on the perils of triethoxysilane
Apr20

More on the perils of triethoxysilane

Another hat tip to a colleague, this time Stephen Ritter, for a new letter published late last week in Organic Process Research & Development “On the Perils of Unexpected Silane Generation” by AstraZeneca scientist Andrew Wells. …it should never be assumed that reaction mixtures containing reducible substrates, (EtO)3SiH and Lewis acids, will not generate SiH4, and the use and scale-up of any such process should be undertaken with great caution and with high regard for potential hazards of unexpected generation of SiH4. Safer alternatives to (EtO)3SiH that cannot lead to SiH4 generation should always be considered before the use of (EtO)3SiH. Some examples are tetramethyldisiloxane(14) and polymethylhydrosiloxane.(7, 15) Yes, The emphasis on never is in the original text. References: 7. Coumbe, T. et al. Tetrahedron Lett. 1994, 35, 625 14. Petit, C. et al. Organometallics 2009, 28, 6379 15. Lawrence, N. J. et al. J. Chem. Soc., Perkin Trans. 1 1999, 23,...

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