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Dow teams up with universities on lab safety, how’d the UC “Creating Safety Cultures” webinar go?

Following up on a blog post last spring about a new lab safety partnership between Dow Chemical and the University of Minnesota, I’ve got a story in today’s issue of C&EN delving into the details of what Dow and its partner universities have done so far. Since the program started, Dow has expanded it to include Penn State University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, and each school is experimenting with different Dow-inspired ideas. Also, students, take note:

It’s not just the schools that have benefited from the interactions between Dow and the universities. Dow has changed one of its practices as well, Gupta says. Dow recruiters are now asking questions about safety in on-campus interviews, looking for people who have taken leadership positions or tried to emphasize safety in their own work.

Separately, did anyone attend the University of California’s webinar last week on “Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions.” How was it? Did you get anything useful out of it? I was enmeshed in training and our annual Advisory Board and staff meetings for much of last week, so I had to miss it.

Last but not least, I hope that everyone on the U.S. Atlantic seaboard stays safe and dry during Sandy.

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 Wall).

Lab safety survey still open

Happy Monday, all! The laboratory safety survey sponsored by the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety, BioRAFT, and Nature Publishing Group is still open for another week, until July 23. If you haven’t taken it, consider doing so at go.nature.com/7LDJlI.

Explosion during phosphine prep

We have a safety alert in this week’s issue of C&EN, regarding an explosion that happened at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, during distillation of (C6F5)PH2:

While a researcher fractionally distilled the primary phosphine (C6F5)PH2, which was synthesized by the reduction of (C6F5)PCl2 with an excess of lithium aluminum hydride (LAH), the distillation apparatus containing the phosphine detonated. Fortunately, because the researcher was wearing appropriate personal protective equipment and working in front of a sliding blast shield, only minor injuries resulted from the explosion.

The researcher was following a literature prep for the synthesis of (C6F5)PH2 (Z. Naturforschg. 1966, 21b, 920), wherein (C6F5)PCl2 was reduced with an excess (2.1 M equiv based on Li) of LAH. After the reaction was completed, the slurry was filtered and ether was evaporated from the filtrate, yielding an oil and some LAH. This mixture was then extracted into hexanes to remove the remaining LAH, and the resulting phosphine/hexanes mixture was fractionally distilled under N2. After the hexanes were fractionally distilled away and the distillation apparatus was at approximately 50 °C, the apparatus detonated.

The source of the incident is being investigated. Work with this molecule and similar compounds should be conducted carefully until the exact cause of this incident is determined and reported.

By Ian Tonks
Clark Landis
Department of Chemistry
University of Wisconsin, Madison

Another explosion at Texas Tech and a fire at UCLA

A few days before the Chemical Safety Board report on Texas Tech University came out, TTU had another laboratory explosion of sorts in the chemistry department. This one didn’t involve energetic materials; rather, it centered on a waste bottle that contained dilute nitric acid, TTU Vice President for Research Taylor Eighmy said in a conference call for reporters last week. The nitric acid bottle was in a hood, next to a bottle of dilute acetic acid, and when the nitric acid bottle blew it cracked the base of the hood and sent glass shards and the waste solution into the lab, TTU said.

The good news was that the lab was empty and no one was hurt. But someone could have been hurt because the hood sash was up–although I don’t know how high–and the glass and waste solution was therefore able to spread out into the lab, Eighmy said. So that’s lesson #1: Pull down hood sashes.

Lesson #2 will likely involve what exactly was in the bottle with the nitric acid. TTU is still investigating that. But, as we saw last month at the University of Maryland and others have noted, nitric acid is a strong oxidizing agent and will react with organic compounds. Prudent Practices has this to say about it (page 138):

Nitric acid is a strong acid, very corrosive, and decomposes to produce nitrogen oxides. The fumes are very irritating, and inhalation may cause pulmonary edema. Nitric acid is also a powerful oxidant and reacts violently, sometimes explosively [with] reducing agents (e.g., organic compounds) with liberation of toxic nitrogen oxides. Contact with organic matter must be avoided. Extreme caution must be taken when cleaning glassware contaminated with organic solvents or material with nitric acid. Toxic fumes of NOx are generated and explosion may occur.

This week, there was a fire in a medical research lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, Center for Health Sciences. It was a small fire that was confined to one room and no one was injured, UCLA said. But nearly 150 fire fighters responded, the Los Angeles Fire Department said. UCLA spokesman Phil Hampton told me in an e-mail that “a confirmed fire in a research lab in a multi-story building automatically generates a large response. The vast majority of the responding crews left shortly after they arrived.” UCLA is still investigating the cause of the fire. The Daily Bruin reported today that:

Lab manager Erika Valore said she was not in the lab at the time but was told a person working there was boiling water in plastic tubes over a Bunsen burner.

Valore said the person left the room for a couple of minutes. Then people in the lab smelled smoke and saw flames going up to the ceiling, she said.

This would not normally happen with a water bath, and the incident was highly unusual, Valore said. She added she had not seen anything like this in her 25 years at UCLA.

I’m not clear from this what, exactly, “would not normally happen with a water bath”: that it was set up with plastic tubes over a Bunsen burner, that it was left unattended, or that it went up in flames? A Bunsen burner is obviously a fire hazard and should not be left unattended (see here for other safety precautions). As for the water bath aspect, it would be unusual for a typical water bath in a glass container to catch fire. Plastic tubes and a Bunsen burner, however, seem like a recipe for a fire.

CSB video on Texas Tech incident released

The Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board yesterday released its report into last year’s explosion at Texas Tech University; today it released the video to go with that report.

Yes, that Dr. Kemsley is indeed yours truly.

I also wanted to highlight these passages from the report itself. It’s not often that one sees the first two paragraphs spelled out in a public document:

In academia, the PI generally has significant authority over his/her research. At Texas Tech,
the issue of academic “fiefdoms” was evident; in the fiefdom system, a department is broken
into smaller units that have individuals in charge (in this context, “fiefs”), where these
individuals “are nominally subordinate to a person or persons above them, but in practice
do pretty much whatever they want so long as they do not stray too far into some other
fief’s territory.” As such, “each fief has an intellectual or administrative territory over which
he or she reigns.” (McCroskey, 1990, p. 474)

At academic research institutions, PIs may view laboratory inspections by an outside entity
as infringing upon their academic freedom. This was the case at Texas Tech, where EH&S
laboratory safety checks were not viewed as a means to understand how a PIs’ laboratory
practiced safety in their absence. Instead, some PIs saw the notification of safety violations
to the Chair as “building a case” against them, felt that the safety inspections inhibited their
research, and considered recommended safety changes outside their control because they
could not “babysit” their students.

To combat cultural issues (such as fiefdoms) and bring a focus to safety within any given organization,
it is important to ensure that the reporting structure allows for communication
of safety information to those within the organizational hierarchy that have the authority
and resources to implement safety change. Often, the Department Chair is considered the
responsible person for ensuring safety; however, in practice, the Chair holds this managerial
role while at the same time maintaining his/her role as a principal investigator for research;
thus, a potential conflict exists due to the duality of the position. Authority and oversight
of safety at a level above the Chair is a critical component of safety management within an
academic structure.

CSB report on Texas Tech includes recommendation for ACS action

The U.S. Chemical Hazard & Safety Investigation Board today released its report on its investigation into the explosion at Texas Tech University nearly two years ago. While the nature of the problems at Texas Tech have been well documented previously, today’s CSB webinar enabled the attendee to get an overall picture from several perspectives. As the Texas Tech Director of Communications noted, it was a “disturbing, poignant presentation” that essentially pointed out that the organizational structure prevented any chance of effectively protecting students.

Overall, I thought the webinar was well organized, and while I’ve heard some disappointment that no new material was presented, one thing that was clearly new was the recommendations made to Texas Tech, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), and the American Chemical Society. While I am not completely versed on previous CSB reports, I was struck by the directive to ACS to create hazard guidance and evaluation tools. Specifically, the report recommended that ACS “Develop good practice guidance that identifies and describes methodologies to assess and control hazards that can be used successfully in a research laboratory.”

So how should ACS proceed? And is there enough consistency in how research institutions address safety to suggest that one size fits all? How do university environmental health and safety (EH&S) offices and staff fit in? As several institutions have noted, there is great variance in the organizational structure of university safety programs, and many EH&S offices have better working relationships (authority, resources, sufficient staff) with research groups than others where safety is not taken as seriously.


Working with fluorine

Digging back into ACS journals this week, I came across this warning in a 1976 Journal of Chemical Education paper (DOI: 10.1021/ed049p583) that discussed preparing perbromate by bubbling fluorine gas through an alkaline bromate solution:

There are problems associated with this preparative method for which precautions must be taken (8). For example, some fluorine escapes from the alkaline solution which results in small explosions above the reacting mixture, and the action of fluorine on Teflon sometimes results in fires.

Reference 8 took me to an Inorganic Chemistry paper from 1969 (DOI: 10.1021/ic50072a008):

Although most of the fluorine is absorbed by the base, enough escapes to make it imperative that the reaction be carried out in a well-ventilated fume hood. The reaction is not smooth, and small explosions may take place in the vapor above the solution. Under no circumstances should the apparatus be left to run unattended.

I wonder what exactly “small” means in the context of “small explosions.” Anyone want to share their experiences with handling fluorine?

For those who haven’t seen fluorine in action, here are the good folks of The Periodic Table of Videos visiting Eric Hope‘s lab at the University of Leicester, in the U.K.:

To work or not to work alone in lab

Last week on ChemBark, Paul posted about the issue of working alone in lab:

I’ve got no major problem with working alone, so long as the person doing so uses good judgment in deciding what type of work is reasonable in these situations.  When alone, it is prudent to limit yourself to experiments that don’t require especially hazardous reagents, dangerous conditions, or large scales.  That said, I don’t think there are any black-and-white rules you can institute.  Experience should also enter the analysis; you don’t want to try something dodgy for the first time when you are alone.

There are a bunch of other questions that can arise with respect to any outright ban of working alone.  First off, what counts as “alone”?  The institutional policies I’ve come across aren’t specific.  Must the researchers working be located in the same bay?  The same room?  Same floor?  Same building?

We’ve tackled this issue before on The Safety Zone, most notably in a discussion with Tim Gallagher, chair of the chemistry department at the University of Bristol, in the U.K.:

Another thing Gallagher highlights about his department’s safety culture is a prohibition on working alone—something that can be tricky to get right, he says. One approach is that no one works outside of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. because no one else will be there. Another is to get people to collaborate to enable longer or later time in the lab. In Gallagher’s department, “We have a culture where students will work with one another to enable their experiments,” he says, noting that people must work within the line of sight of another person. Having someone in an office down the hall doesn’t cut it.

On one level, I agree with Paul that the work in question should dictate the circumstances–that is, after all, what risk assessment is all about. But are there not still some fundamental rules that should be in place? I always wear my seat belt in a car, for example, even when it’s daytime, the roads are dry, and the driver is sober, well-rested, and has been driving for many years without incident. (Full disclosure: I did work alone as a graduate student, principally to collect magnetic circular dichroism spectra. I’ve also been in a car accident.) It’s not always the hazards you know about that will cause a problem, as Gallagher also illustrated:

An incident at Bristol [in 2009] left a student’s face and hands badly cut when an experiment exploded and shattered the safety glass on the fume hood. With the benefit of hindsight, Gallagher says that the most likely cause was a side reaction that produced a small amount of an alkyl peroxide, which detonated when it came into contact with a ground-glass joint. But the peroxide formation was not something anyone had foreseen.

Are there basic safety policies that you think should be in place for all labs, all the time?

Salmonella outbreak linked to laboratories

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has traced Salmonella Typhimurium infections to exposure in clinical and teaching laboratories, according to an April 28 report. The strain involved in the illnesses is one that is commercially available for use in microbiology labs.

The outbreak identified by CDC involves 73 people from 35 states, with the biggest number (six) from Pennsylvania. Of those 73, 44 had contact with a microbiology laboratory in the week before they became ill. Salmonella causes diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps, and usually lasts 4-7 days.

Notably, what happened in the lab didn’t stay in the lab: “several children who live in households with a person who works or studies in a microbiology laboratory have become ill with the outbreak strain,” the CDC report says. In some of those cases, Nature reports, the laboratory worker didn’t get ill–he or she just passed it on to household members. One person died from the outbreak but CDC doesn’t say who it was; 10 others were hospitalized.

The CDC report contains some reminders of good microbiology lab practices. Change “bacteria” to “chemicals” and it’s good advice for chemists, too:

  • Be aware that bacteria used in microbiology laboratories can make you or others who live in your household sick, especially young children, even if they have never visited the laboratory. It is possible for bacteria to be brought into the home through contaminated lab coats, pens, notebooks and other items that are used in the microbiology laboratory.
  • Persons working with infectious agents, including Salmonella bacteria, must be aware of potential hazards, and must be trained and proficient in biosafety practices and techniques required for handling such agents safely, including:
    • Wash hands frequently while working in and immediately after leaving the microbiology laboratory and follow proper hand washing practices. This is especially important to do before preparing food or baby bottles, before eating and before contact with young children.
    • Do not bring food, drinks or personal items like car keys, cell phones and mp3 players into the laboratory. These items may become contaminated if you touch them while working or if you place them on work surfaces.
  • Do not bring pens, notebooks, and other items used inside of the microbiology laboratory into your home.
    • Wear a lab coat or other protective uniform over personal clothing when working in a microbiology laboratory; leave it in the laboratory when you are finished. Remove protective clothing before leaving for non-laboratory areas (e.g., cafeteria, library, or administrative offices). Dispose of protective clothing appropriately or deposit it for laundering by the institution. Take it out of the laboratory only to clean it.
  • If you work with Salmonella bacteria in a microbiology laboratory, watch for symptoms of Salmonella infection, such as diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. Call your health care provider if you or a family member has any of these symptoms.

It reminds laboratory directors, managers, and faculty of their responsibilities, too.

(Hat tip to Nature News.)