‘Talking about safety is something that scientists do’ (or, at least, should)
Aug23

‘Talking about safety is something that scientists do’ (or, at least, should)

My story looking into the details of the January incident at Texas Tech University is out today: Texas Tech Lessons. In short, a graduate student made way too much of an extremely hazardous material, didn't use protective equipment, and got badly hurt when the substance blew up in his hands. The incident is prompting changes in safety programs not just at TTU but also in research centers funded by the Department of Homeland Security. The person about to be in charge of all environmental health and safety (EH&S) matters at Texas Tech is Alice Young, TTU’s faculty fellow for research integrity, a position that falls under the office of the vice president for research. She is also a professor of psychology and of pharmacology and neuroscience. As faculty fellow for research integrity, Young’s responsibilities include oversight of TTU’s institutional review board for research on human subjects, animal care and use, research integrity, and research misconduct. She is also in charge of the university’s responsible conduct of research programs, which are now required for all students and postdocs funded by National Science Foundation grants, as well as some National Institutes of Health-funded researchers. Previously, TTU’s EH&S department had been considered part of facilities. “We are fully convinced that the only way to have a proper safety culture on campus is to have EH&S and all that it does be more fully integrated into the academic and research environment on campus,” says T. Taylor Eighmy, TTU’s vice president for research. “We believe it will have more prominence with faculty and students when it’s affiliated with this office.” Young’s own research involves using animals to look at the processes underlying drug tolerance and dependence. She says that, when she arrived in Texas, she couldn’t get a key to her lab in TTU’s Health Sciences Center until she’d gone through basic safety training and had a consultation with that facility’s EH&S staff about what she needed to do her research safely. That’s a model she wants to see implemented across the institution. “The kind of steps we’re taking are to make sure EH&S is aware of all new faculty hires,” Young says, as well as ensuring that EH&S is notified when established faculty members embark on a new area of research. Young also says that she wants to see a change in mindset about regulatory oversight. In her lab, instead of seeing regulations as an annoyance or a hindrance, she tries to look at them as a way to enhance her research program—a way to make things better for her animals or her researchers. She would also like to see a more collaborative...

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Texas Tech in the news
Aug04

Texas Tech in the news

The January incident at Texas Tech, when a graduate student was badly injured while handling explosive material, has resurfaced in the news over the past few weeks. Here are the main stories: C&EN Texas Tech overhauls lab safety Lab blast raises safety awareness Blast probe finds 20 safety violations (one correction: the student was working with cobalt perchlorate hydrazinate, not cobalt hydroxide) We'll have a more detailed story about the accident and its aftermath coming soon, too. In the meantime, if you're curious to know more about how some academic labs handle highly hazardous materials, here's a story I wrote on that topic a couple of years ago: Making explosives in the lab. 8/24/2010 UPDATE: As documented here, the students were most likely working with nickel hydrazine perchlorate. The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal story has also been...

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Missouri, SIUC incidents
Jun29

Missouri, SIUC incidents

I spent today reporting on the lab explosion at the University of Missouri yesterday, along with a bit on the fire at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (SIUC), earlier this month. The story: Research Lab Explosion Injures Four People Additional information on the SIUC incident is available here, courtesy of SIUC public information officer Tim Crosby. Hopefully I'll have more about the Missouri incident in a couple of weeks, when the fire department investigation is...

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“Safety first”
Mar30

“Safety first”

Via the skeptical chymist, Nature Chemistry has an editorial on lab safety in its April issue. The conclusion: Although legislation can put policies and procedures in place to try to minimize the safety risks in chemical laboratories, accidents will still happen and no law will prevent them. Only a wholesale acceptance of responsibility from top to bottom will do. From the top, academic departments must do more to ensure that safety comes first for all staff and students. Faculty members should instil their groups with a strong culture of safety and be prepared for work to go a little more slowly for it to go more safely. Post-doctoral workers must realize that their habits will be imitated by more junior members in the laboratory and so they should act accordingly and be prepared to mentor their co-workers. Finally, undergraduate and postgraduate students should exercise their right to express concern over their colleagues' practices. It must be acknowledged that safe practices are not there to make lives more difficult, but to save those lives — it is only through actively using those safety measures that accidents will be reduced to as low a level as possible. One of the things I've been thinking about lately is that when we teach chemistry, fundamentally we're teaching about reactivity. Reactivity, of course, is key to safety considerations, whether we're talking about a highly exothermic reaction, cyanide inhibiting cytochrome c oxidase, or how to dispose of laboratory waste. So why are safe lab practices often seen as a nuisance or a barrier rather than an integral part of learning about and doing chemistry, from high school on...

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Take care with triethoxysilane
Mar29

Take care with triethoxysilane

A hat tip to our colleague and The Haystack blogger Carmen Drahl for catching this addition/correction relating to a paper from Matthias Beller's lab published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Chemical Society: Our Communication did not emphasize important safety considerations in the reported reactions. Buchwald and co-workers previously studied the Ti-catalyzed reduction of amides to amines or enamines.(1) Additionally, in 1992, Berk and Buchwald reported the combination of 5 mol % Ti(O-i-Pr)4 with 2.5−3.0 equiv of (EtO)3SiH for the reduction of esters to silyl ethers at 40−55 °C.(2) An attempt to use this procedure for the reduction of a methyl ester (90 mmol) with triethoxysilane (313 mmol) resulted in the formation of an extremely pyrophoric gas (possibly SiH4), leading to several fires and an explosion.(3) During our studies on the reduction of amides, we used triethoxysilane without incident, although the Material Safety Data Sheet indicates that this chemical is a corrosive and flammable liquid. Due to the previously reported hazards, we advise that methyldiethoxysilane be used instead of triethoxysilane for the large-scale (>1 g) reduction of amides. As shown in the Supporting Information of our Communication, methyldiethoxysilane and other organosilanes can also be used for the reduction of amides at slightly higher temperature, e.g. 60 °C. We thank Professor Buchwald for pointing out these latent safety problems with triethoxysilane. Reference 3 is to Buchwald's safety letter to C&EN, Silane disproportionation results in spontaneous ignition. Kudos to Buchwald and Beller for following up on...

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