This Week on CENtral Science: Whale Fossils, Oscar Noms, UC Davis bailout, and more
Feb22

This Week on CENtral Science: Whale Fossils, Oscar Noms, UC Davis bailout, and more

Tweet of the Week: I've been thinking about it, and I've decided that getting a Ph.D. is like trying to run a marathon while you're up to your waist in water.— Emily Mason (@ejmaso05) February 21, 2013 On to the network: Artful Science: Two million-year-old whale fossils printed with 3D technology Grand CENtral: Guest Post: “Science, the human endeavor” by Biochem Belle Newscripts: Amusing News Aliquots and Need A Centrifuge? Print One Out and I’d Like To Thank The Academy, Nay, Harvey Weinstein The Safety Zone: A brief Friday chemical safety round-up The Watchglass: When TSCA was a bill and Wire Suit and Chemistry...

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Cal/OSHA Investigates UCLA, Again
Aug27

Cal/OSHA Investigates UCLA, Again

(Post updated at end.) The University of California, Los Angeles, is still under the microscope of state regulators. California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) officials paid the school's chemistry & biochemistry department a surprise visit on Tuesday, Aug. 26. Cal/OSHA spokesperson Erika Monterroza says that the inspection marked the opening of a new investigation into laboratory health & safety at the university, although she refused to comment on the details of the investigation while it is ongoing, including what prompted it. California law gives Cal/OSHA six months to complete investigations, although the agency usually takes 3-4 months, Monterroza says. Rita Kern, a staff research associate in UCLA's medical school, is a member of the University Professional and Technical Employees union's health & safety committee and accompanied the three Cal/OSHA inspectors. The inspectors did not reveal what prompted their visit, she says. The group had intended to inspect multiple labs in the chemistry & biochemistry department, Kern says, but because of time constraints looked only at the labs of Patrick Harran, a UCLA chemistry professor and the supervisor of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, a staff research associate who died earlier this year from burns sustained in a fire in Harran's lab. Harran was not present for the inspection, Kern says. The inspectors plan to return to look at the labs of other faculty members, Kern says. The inspectors scrutinized general housekeeping in the labs, whether people were wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, and whether workers were informed about the hazards of the chemicals in the labs, Kern says. She says that the inspection was more educational than adversarial, with the Cal/OSHA personnel making it clear that they were there to look out for the well-being of the lab workers. At the exit conference, the inspectors highlighted the need to ensure proper labeling of chemicals and put away items that are not in use, as well as that lab workers should be better informed about what they're working with and the hazards involved, Kern says. One of the inspectors noted that what they had seen that day was not significantly different from what they have generally observed at other universities, Kern says. "UCLA will review Cal/OSHA's finding and, where appropriate and possible, address them immediately, consistent with UCLA's commitment to ensuring the safest possible operation of all campus labs," says UCLA spokesperson Phil Hampton. It remains unclear what prompted the inspection. According to Cal/OSHA's User's Guide (pdf), a surprise inspection could be triggered by a formal complaint made by an employee or an employee representative such as an attorney or a union or health & safety professional. "Formal complaints are...

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Tampering with Evidence?
Aug05

Tampering with Evidence?

One of the allegations that has been printed in other media accounts of the lab fire and its aftermath at the University of California, Los Angeles, is that members of Patrick Harran's lab tampered with the incident scene. Based on documents C&EN obtained through a California Public Records Act request, this seems to be what happened: The fire occurred shortly before 3 PM on Dec. 29, 2008. Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji was taken to the emergency room and Harran followed. After Sangji and Harran left, Los Angeles County hazardous materials crews cleaned up the lab. (Recall that medical personnel had put Sangji under the safety shower. Showers are supposed to run at a minimum of 75.7 L/minute for 15 minutes, so there should have been about 1,100 L of water to test and mop up.) Harran returned to the lab around 7 PM and was asked by fire officials to shut down the experiment to ensure the hood was safe. Sometime after Harran shut down the experiment, UCLA deputy fire marshal Christopher Lutton took photographs of the lab and Sangji's hood. Lutton also told Harran that the lab would be locked and investigated, although there's no record of exactly what Lutton said. At around 7:30 PM, Lutton left the lab and went down to his vehicle remove his gear, call the locksmith, and call one of his colleagues. At about 8:30 PM, Lutton returned to the lab to find Harran and  postdocs Weifeng Chen and Hui Ding in the lab. In a later interview with Gene Gorostiza,  the UCLA police detective who investigated the scene tampering allegations, Ding said that he and Chen removed six empty flammable liquids containers from the lab and put them in the building's trash. They also put other solvent containers into a lab storage cabinet. Lutton ordered everyone out of the room and stayed on the scene until the locksmith arrived at 9:55 PM. The locksmith finished changing the locks at 11:35 PM. At that point, the doors were locked and Lutton took possession of the only key, put up yellow barrier tape, and left. Lutton returned to the lab the next morning to find that the restraining bolts in a side panel to one of the doors had been released, allowing the door to open freely. Lutton told Gorostiza that at that point he discovered that the room contents had been tampered with. A timeline of the incident included in UCLA fire marshal documents says that, comparing photos of the lab taken in the morning to the ones taken the previous evening, containers of flammable liquids were removed, other containers were moved into a...

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Evaluating Safety
Aug03

Evaluating Safety

C&EN has a comprehensive story out today on the lab fire and its aftermath at the University of California, Los Angeles. Research Assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji died as a result of injuries sustained in the fire, which occurred while she was handling tert-butyllithium. One of the things that has come up repeatedly while I've been covering the incident is the fact that, while industrial research labs reportedly have no problem managing to include safety in job expectations and performance reviews, that is something that is not done in academia. In terms of faculty expectations, perhaps research, teaching, and service should explicitly be safe research. Neal Langerman, the founder of the company Advanced Chemical Safety and a consultant to the American Chemical Society's (ACS) Committee on Chemical Safety, has gone so far as to contact the ACS Board Committee on Grants and Awards to discuss how ACS (which publishes C&EN) might consider including safety records in award decisions. He discussed the proposal with the committee during a conference call in July. The committee will consider the idea at future meetings, says Eric C. Bigham, the committee's chair. While incorporating safety into grant or award decisions may sound like a good idea (or not--I know that at least Chemjobber disagrees), as in many things, the devil might be in the details. For example, in a letter Langerman wrote to former ACS president Bill Carroll, Langerman notes that: In 2005, the F. Albert Cotton Award was presented to Philip Power of UC Davis. The same day he accepted the award, a member of the UC Davis [Environmental Health & Safety] staff was presenting an incident report to [the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety] on a serious fire in Professor Power's laboratory at Davis in 2004. The fire involved the misuse of a water-reactive chemical and caused $610,000 in damage. According to Debbie M. Decker, the UC Davis safety officer who presented the incident report, researchers in Power's group had shut down and allowed the lab's hot pot distillation apparatus to cool before the building water, which was used for cooling, was shut down for maintenance. The water valves, however, were left open. When the building water came back on, the pressure spike was high enough to blow out one or more glass condensers and put water into contact with sodium and potassium metal. The ensuing fire pretty much destroyed the lab; fortunately, no one was hurt. Leaving the water lines open wasn't a hazard that anyone had foreseen, Decker says. Should the incident have cost Power his award? There's also the issue of how generally to benchmark safety records. Academia,...

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