Academic lab safety letters in this week’s issue
Dec19

Academic lab safety letters in this week’s issue

We have a couple of letters regarding academic lab safety in this week’s issue of C&EN. From one: I am disappointed to learn from the article “Academic Lab Safety under Exam” that most of the conventional industrial laboratory concepts and practices of decades ago have yet to be implemented in colleges and graduate schools in 2011 (C&EN, Oct. 24, page 25). Maybe I’m prejudiced because I come from a history of dangerous research, went through years of “training” with high-pressure reactions, and ended up teaching industrial safety to college faculty and students (as well as industrial and municipal investigators). And the other: Most of the people in [academic] labs are relative rookies. … By contrast, an industrial lab will frequently have people with 10, 15, or 20 years’ experience in the lab. You cannot teach years of experience. So it’s not surprising that mistakes occur in a lab full of people where the most senior person may only have four or five years of experience. In some rare cases, a professor sending students off to do experiments with life-threatening reagents or procedures may tend toward negligence. The culture of having labs populated by inexperienced people has to change or more people will be hurt or killed. Go read them in full. We now have commenting available for online stories, so feel free to add your thoughts. Also in this week’s issue, our last of 2011: the best chemistry of 2011, quotes of the year, a revisit to the chemistry highlights of 2001, and how to add alcohol to ice cream (don’t eat and...

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Supervising the laboratory
Nov09

Supervising the laboratory

One of the common threads that came out of the investigations into the laboratory incidents at UCLA and Texas Tech was a lack of training, communication, and supervision in the laboratories. Sheri Sangji at UCLA did not use the procedure that her adviser would have recommended. Preston Brown synthesized amounts of energetic materials well beyond the limits that his adviser, chemistry professor Louisa Hope-Weeks, thought she had set. I spoke with Hope-Weeks and chemical engineering professor Brandon Weeks recently about how they’re running their labs now. Probably the biggest change is intended to address the question of “How do you know that students understand what you’re telling them?” Weeks says, echoing some recent science blogosphere discussion. Before anyone can do an experiment or use an instrument, Weeks and Hope-Weeks now require everyone in their labs to write out protocols for what they will do. It’s not enough to have a literature protocol in hand: Students must rewrite it in their own words. The same is true for instruments–no one gets to refer just to a lab protocol, everyone has to get trained on an instrument and then write out the protocol for themselves. “After the accident what became clear to me was that oral communication with students was never enough to ensure they understood,” Hope-Weeks says. Now, “when it comes to lab work, we discuss it, and then I say go away and write it down and send it to me.” Hope-Weeks reviews the document, flags any issues, and the student will rewrite as necessary until Hope-Weeks is confident that the student knows what to do and how to do it safely. The process applies to students from other groups who want to do something in the labs, too. Although TTU requires that labs have written standard operating procedures and experimental protocols, different faculty vary in how they implement the requirement–some faculty might write all the procedures that people in their lab are expected to follow or allow the use of literature protocols. But anyone who wants to work in the Hope-Weeks or Weeks labs has to write their own protocols and get them approved before starting experiments. Aside from helping to ensure that students have thought about what they’re to do, the student-written protocols have also flagged some training issues, Hope-Weeks says. She read one protocol recently in which a student said they would use a cannula to transfer 30 mL of an air-sensitive material. Hope-Weeks asked if the student knew how to do that, and the student didn’t. The student will have to set up the equipment and practice with a solvent before proceeding with the experiment....

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Another explosion at Texas Tech and a fire at UCLA
Oct25

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...

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CSB video on Texas Tech incident released
Oct20

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...

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CSB report on Texas Tech includes recommendation for ACS action
Oct19

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....

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