Learning From UCLA

The six columns of letters in this week's print edition of C&EN and several more columns in this week's edition of C&EN Online all pertain to the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, a 23-year-old research assistant in a chemistry laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, and C&EN's coverage of the accident that led to her death. Associate Editor Jyllian Kemsley has written extensively about the accident, culminating in a major investigative article that appeared in the Aug. 3 issue (page 29). To recap, on Dec. 29, 2008, Sangji was scaling up a reaction she had carried out at least once before to produce 4-hydroxy-4-vinyldecane from either 4-undecanone or 4-decanone. The first step of the reaction was to generate vinyllithium by reacting vinylbromide with tert-butyllithium, a pyrophoric chemical. The experiment went terribly wrong when the tert-butyllithium spilled and ignited a spilled flask of hexane. Sangji suffered extensive burns on her upper body. She died on Jan. 16. The letters C&EN has received on the accident focus on several themes. A common one is that the laboratory shower should have been used to extinguish the fire that had engulfed Sangji. James W. Lewis writes that Kemsley's article "tells me that many chemists need to better understand the importance of laboratory safety showers. Immediate use of a safety shower is the best option in a clothes-on-fire situation." Stephen T. Ross writes: "The safety shower that could have lessened her injuries was used neither by Sangji nor by either of the two fellow-chemists who responded to her cries. Why? Possibly it was because chemists are never trained to use the shower because it produces a huge volume of water of uncertain quality without a drain and is, thus, too messy to demonstrate." Ross makes another point, observing that the behavior of "instantly pyrophoric compounds can't be appreciated until it is seen." Potential users should be shown what happens when a small volume is exposed to air and ignites, he writes. "It is important to prepare the mind." Other letter writers wondered why Sangji was scaling up the reaction at all. James T. Palmer writes: "Nowhere, however, did I see anyone ask why an extremely dangerous reagent was used to generate an organometallic compound ... that can be purchased. I have supervised synthetic chemists for more than 20 years. ... Whatever their level, there is one common rule: Buy your bonds rather than make them whenever possible." Peter Reinhardt points to stringent regulations governing the use of radionuclides in academic labs, with the requirement that before an experiment can be carried out, a project-specific plan must be submitted to the institutional Radiation Safety Committee for review. Recombinant DNA experiments must be approved by the Institutional Biosafety Committee. "OSHA [the Occupational Safety & Health Administration] requires that laboratories have a chemical hygiene plan," Reinhardt writes. Such a plan, he says, "is an excellent tool for risk assessment, documenting safety procedures, and training. Although the American Chemical Society supported this performance-based requirement in 1989, it was never embraced by chemists." He continues, "At most academic institutions, there is no institutional chemical safety committee." Perhaps the most common sentiment expressed in the letters is, as James Nowicki writes, the need for a mind-set that "starts with a culture of safety awareness set by the lab's management." Or as safety investigator David M. Manuta writes, "Those who work in an environmental health and safety regulatory capacity are our partners, not adversaries, in ensuring that the workplace is safe." He continues, "Mitigating potential chemical hazards ought to be part of a student's training. Proper handling of chemicals based on [their properties] can be just as important as the percent yield." Sheri Sangji's death was a true tragedy. I hope that C&EN's reporting and the many letters we have received and printed on the events at UCLA will contribute to ensuring that a similar tragedy doesn't ever happen again. Thanks for reading.

Author: Rudy Baum

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  1. Thanks for the efforts C&EN is putting into this; I appreciate it very much.

  2. The use of a safety shower may have been helpful in extinguishing the clothing fire, but only if the shower was within a few feet of the hood where the fire occurred. Stop, drop, and roll is the best option for extinguishing a clothing fire and it gets your breathing zone out of the smoke and heat.

    NFPA 45, Standard on Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals addresses clothing fires and requires procedures and training for laboratory staff to know how to handle clothing fires. It states:* Procedures for extinguishing clothing fires shall be established.

    A. Laboratory personnel should be thoroughly indoctrinated in procedures to follow in cases of clothing fires. The most important instruction, one that should be stressed until it becomes second nature to all personnel, is to immediately drop to the floor and roll. All personnel should recognize that, in case of ignition of another person’s clothing, they should immediately knock that person to the floor and roll that person around to smother the flames. Too often a person will panic and run if clothing ignites, resulting in more severe, often fatal, burn injuries.
    Fire-retardant or flame-resistant clothing is one option available to help reduce the occurrence of clothing fires. Refer to NFPA 1975, Standard on Station/Work Uniforms for Fire and Emergency Services, for performance requirements and test methods for fire-resistant clothing.
    It should be emphasized that use of safety showers, fire blankets, or fire extinguishers are of secondary importance. These items should be used only when immediately at hand. It should be recognized that rolling on the floor not only smothers the fire but also helps to keep flames out of the victim’s face, reducing inhalation of smoke.

  3. My spouse, an industrial hygienist, has commented that she was not wearing a lab coat. That layer of protection may have made a difference.

  4. This shower BS is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Direct quote from Russ Phifer, head of ACS Safety: “It means she wasn’t properly trained in what to do in the event she caught fire.”

    I have an idea. Why don’t you let me spray you with some lighter fluid and set you off, and we can see if you have the presence of mind to look for the nearest body of water and douse yourself. Let’s also see if your friends or co-workers usher you in this direction rather than smothering the flames with a coat. These are the people that are supposed to be protecting our best interests? Telling me that if I catch fire I should look for the nearest shower? Morons, why don’t you address the real issue of improper lab technique and safety measures rather than coming up with idiotic platitudes about something that is out of everybody’s control.