Learning from oil spill disasters
Jul22

Learning from oil spill disasters

In last week's issue of C&EN, I had  a story that looked  back at the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills, with an eye toward lessons learned for addressing future spills. I focused on the environmental clean-up, not on the process safety problems that led to the incidents, but there was one talk from the University of New Hampshire Oil Spill Response Forum held last fall that I wanted to flag here. The speaker was Charlie Williams, who retired from Shell as chief scientist for well engineering and production and now leads the Center for Offshore Safety. Consider these quotes, broadening "process" away from industry to include, say, the process of bench synthesis: It became apparent that in major incidents, one of the key elements was how you managed your process. Your process of how you operate, how you execute projects, what you do every day, how you make these decisions for safety every day is a key barrier to preventing a major incident. ... When the presidential commission talked about improving safety culture in the industry, I think one of the main things they were talking about was this balance between protecting individuals with the the better air bags and the better seat belts, and then putting the right amount of focus on how you also manage your processes and the way you execute your work to make sure that you're doing the most you can to prevent these major incidents. Major incidents in academia can, of course, include lost fingers, lost eyesight, and even death. Williams also mentioned management of change, which is an important consideration in a research environment when experiments may be changing frequently. Here's Williams's talk, set to start at the section in question...

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Safely experimenting with actinides
Jun02

Safely experimenting with actinides

A few weeks ago, I wrote a C&EN Science Concentrate about a new californium complex with covalent bonds to its ligands rather than the ionic interactions traditionally expected for actinides. The work was led by Thomas E. Albrecht-Schmitt, a chemistry professor at Florida State University. His lab at FSU works with thorium, protactinium, uranium, neptunium, plutonium, americium, curium, californium, and—soon, for the first time--berkelium. His lab works with those elements safely by investing in protective equipment and meticulously planning experiments. Most of the actinides in Albrecht-Schmitt’s lab only present a concern if people inhale or ingest them, he says. It’s when they get to americium that they have to start thinking about radiation exposure. For americium, the concern is gamma emissions; for curium it’s spontaneous fission to release a neutron. And for californium, the only isotope available in experimental quantity is 249Cf, which releases high-energy gamma radiation. “To shield to background levels we need 2 inches of lead,” Albrecht-Schmitt says. Safety in his lab starts with shoes. “The most common way in which radioactive material leaves a lab is when someone unknowingly steps in a contaminated area and walks out,” Albrecht-Schmitt says. National labs tackle the problem by using foot covers, but his group members have dedicated lab shoes that they change into when they walk in and leave behind when they walk out. His lab also has glove boxes dedicated to transuranium chemistry. Unlike standard glove boxes, which run at positive pressure to protect the box contents from air, Albrecht-Schmitt’s has some that under negative pressure—sucking air in to prevent the spread of particulate matter. “The exhaust from the pumps and boxes is routed through a very sophisticated filter system,” Albrecht-Schmitt says. no images were found When doing lab work, Albrecht-Schmitt and his group members wear double gloves. They also use masking tape to tape the inner glove to their lab coats. That way they never have exposed skin, and if someone thinks their hands have been contaminated, they can remove the outer glove and still be protected. Working in a glove box adds a third layer to the hands. The lab has several radiation counters, including general ones to detect any kind of radiation and specific ones to check for alpha, beta, and gamma emissions. There’s also a special hand and foot monitor that people step on for a scan before leaving the lab. Lab coats get checked and replaced as needed. “Students who do low-level work may replace theirs once a year, but routine work with short-lived isotopes may mean replacing them 3-4 times a year,” Albrecht-Schmitt says. Used coats go into radioactive waste. And then...

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Lab safety task force launched by Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities
May07

Lab safety task force launched by Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities

The Association of Public & Land Grant Universities (APLU) has established a Task Force on Laboratory Safety, which held its first face-to-face meeting in Washington, DC this week. The goal of the task force is to build on academic lab safety reports issued by the American Chemical Society (ACS) in 2012 and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 2014, says one of the task force’s chairs, Taylor Eighmy, vice chancellor for research and engagement at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Eighmy was Texas Tech University’s vice president for research when an explosive materials incident there injured a graduate student. One goal of the task force is to look at the recommendations made in those prior reports and figure out how to implement them, Eighmy said. On the first day of the meeting, the agenda included speakers from multiple organizations slated to discuss lab safety culture as well as models of accreditation and certification. The meeting was closed to the public. Eighmy and his task force colleagues expect that federal funding agencies will start to hold universities accountable for “their ability to ensure that research can be conducted on campus in a safe and reliable manner,” he says. “We know full well the importance of other accreditation processes relative to federal funding,” such as for research on animals and humans, he adds. While the ACS and NAS reports focused on chemical laboratories, the task force may look at research safety more broadly, including areas such as field research and art studios, suggested Mark McLellan, the other task force chair. McLellan is vice president for research and Dean of the School of Graduate Studies at Utah State University. The NAS report included a specific recommendation aimed at ACS, APLU, the Association of American Universities, and the American Council on Education, saying that they should “work together to establish and maintain an anonymous reporting system, building on industry efforts, for centralizing the collection of information about and lessons learned from incidents and near misses in academic laboratories, and linking these data to the scientific literature.” The ACS Board of Directors declined last year to support an ACS Committee on Chemical Safety initiative to create an incident reporting system. After the first meeting day, it wasn't clear whether APLU would pick up the charge, either. Howard Gobstein, executive vice president of APLU, calls the database concept "unwieldy." "We have to wrestle with this and other recommendations so that they're implementable, they make sense, they're longstanding, and they result in cultural change," Eighmy says. Update to add links to other coverage: Chronicle of Higher Education, Under Pressure, Universities Take a Renewed Shot at...

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If you’re tempted to brush your teeth at the lab sink…
Mar18

If you’re tempted to brush your teeth at the lab sink…

Don't. Just don't. That goes double for PIs. I would really like to know why on earth this one thinks it's a good idea.

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Safety Madness at UT Austin
Mar04

Safety Madness at UT Austin

March is fast approaching and with it March Madness, also known as the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament (go Cardinal!). The chemistry department at the University of Texas, Austin, took a page out of the basketball book last year and created a “Safety Madness” tournament—complete with brackets–for its department. Lab groups divided into the “makers” (organic and inorganic divisions) and “measurers” (analytical and physical divisions), says chemistry professor Sean T. Roberts. The reason for the split was concern about comparing different lab operations. “My lab does ultrafast spectroscopy, and the biggest concern for us is laser safety,” Roberts says. “I don’t know how you compare laser safety practices versus synthesis. The risks are very different.” So the department decided to crown one “makers” champion and one “measurers” champion. For the initial round of the tournament, each lab group had to submit a best practices document for that group. The idea was to get groups to settle on core tenets that they should follow. “We got all manner of different documents back,” Roberts says. His group was new and had to create their from scratch, while others had something that had clearly been passed down for years from group member to group member. One came in as a mad lib—with correct answers at the bottom, Roberts says. Round two involved having faculty do a lab inspection. “We’d ask students questions and put their feet to the fire to try to figure out which labs were better prepared,” Roberts says. The winners of this round each got a $100 gift card. The final round involved student-led lab inspections. The ultimate champions? Eric Anslyn’s group for the makers and Roberts’s group for the measurers. Each group earned a $200 gift card. For a first time event, Roberts was pretty happy with how the contest went, he says. One disappointment was that only about half of the department competed, but that might have been due to poor advertising, he says. Roberts was also surprised by the feedback he got from students. “I thought that students would be more excited by having a financial prize at the end, but that wasn’t the case,” Roberts says. “Talking to students, many felt that they would prefer an award that they could put on their CV to help them land a job in an industrial setting.” "One positive that came out of the competition was that some members of our faculty saw the value in having a peer-to-peer style lab evaluation apart from the inspections that we have periodically from EHS," Roberts adds. "I'm partnering with another junior faculty member at UT, Mike Rose, to institute a...

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Something to do in lab today
Mar02

Something to do in lab today

I said I'd make this a monthly repost, then travel and assorted other things meant that I forgot it in February. Trying again... From Derek Lowe, in memory of people who died in chemical incidents: So in memory of these four, here’s something that all of us who work in the lab can do today. Take a look around you. Remind yourself of where the fire extinguishers are (and there should be more than one kind). Think of how you’d get to the safety shower if you had to use it. And pick the door you’ll use if a situation get beyond that. It’s far easier to go over such details when things are quiet, and if you do that every so often you’ll have a much better chance of remembering where to go when you really need to. And whenever you’re setting up an experiment that involve any noticeable hazard (pyrophoric reagent, toxic liquid or gas, potential exotherm), think for a moment about what might be most likely to go wrong, and also what the worst thing that could happen might be, and what you’d do about them. Is it dropping that bottle of phosgene solution on the floor? A fire started by your hydrogenation catalyst or your sodium hydride? An exotherm that sends your reaction pouring out over the hot plate or heating mantle? Picturing these things beforehand is never wasted time, because (as everyone with experience in the lab knows) such things do happen, and not on anyone’s schedule. Those four DuPont workers were getting ready to go home for the day when suddenly everything went wrong: in their memory, keep an eye out for what might go wrong in your own fume hood. (Some commenters have already quibbled over the "more than one kind" of fire extinguisher point. Just make sure you have what you need for your...

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