Some Thoughts on Lab Incidents
Aug07

Some Thoughts on Lab Incidents

C&EN has put out a lot of information this week on the UCLA lab fire that led to the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, with the magazine story and accompanying investigation reports, as well as the posts here on the blog. I have a few more thoughts before we wrap up. First, it's important to keep in mind that the only reason C&EN was able to get as much information as it did about what happened to Sangji was because the incident occurred at a public university that is subject to public records laws. Most of the reports belonged to UCLA's fire marshals, fire department, police department, and environmental health & safety office. The notes and reports of people in similar positions at a private school would be unattainable if the school chose not to release them. Cal/OSHA collected complementary information, but the agency would not have been involved had Sangji been a student. Undergraduate and graduate students, and sometimes even postdocs, are typically not considered to be university employees, even if they're paid a stipend. Cal/OSHA and similar agencies only have jurisdiction over employees. (On a separate but related note, students also may not be eligible for worker's compensation.) Second, getting the facts right in this case has been a challenge, despite the fact that C&EN reporters and editors work hard to ensure that the information in our stories comes from reliable sources. One example is that C&EN initially reported that Sangji was wearing a synthetic sweater, based on a post to the American Chemical Society's Division of Chemical Health & Safety e-mail list. But that detail didn't seem to be included in the documents C&EN later reviewed. Another example was the fact that the Cal/OSHA summary of the incident said that Sangji had been syringing only 20 mL of tert-butyllithium, when she was really aiming for three 50 mL transfers. Now take a moment to imagine how incident information likely gets distorted when institutions aren't upfront about what happened in an incident and documentation isn't available, and the chemistry community is forced to play a game of telephone. As research labs and universities take a look at their safety programs in light of Sangji's death, I hope that they also consider their responsibility to the research community to disseminate information--C&EN's Safety Letters are one way to do so--so that others can learn from what happened. I realize that a fear of lawsuits is probably what drives some to clamp down, but as some medical doctors have found, perhaps if you step up, take responsibility for what went wrong, and explain what you'll do to ensure that it...

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Promoting Safe Research Practices
Aug06

Promoting Safe Research Practices

In my story Learning from UCLA, about the laboratory fire that led to the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, one of the things that Rick Danheiser, a chemistry professor and chair of his department's safety committee at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, cautions against is trying to improve laboratory safety in such a way that that you wind up with an adversarial relationship between researchers and environmental health & safety personnel. Others have warned against being too punitive, since that just encourages people to hide what goes wrong. And as I've written before, if you don't know what happened then you can't learn from it. So, if people want to improve the safety culture in their departments, what are positive ways to do it? Anna Davis, a researcher just wrapping up her first year at Dow Chemical, thinks that academic departments could benefit from collaborating with industrial labs on good safety practices. Rohm & Haas, which was recently acquired by Dow, was actually working on a project with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers to develop a safety certification program for academic departments, says Susan Dallessandro, a senior research & development director at Dow. Dow is evaluating how to develop that program within its existing outreach efforts, Dallessandro says. James Kaufman, director of the Laboratory Safety Institute, suggests that colleges and universities get creative with rewards. "We have lots of ways of telling people they're doing a bad job but relatively few ways of saying thank you for a good job," he says. One idea that he has for larger institutions is to have EH&S officers nominate labs they inspect every month for a "safety excellence" award that includes a thank you from top-level administration. Once a year the school's president could then invite those labs to a lunch at which he or she could personally thank them. In a report issued last month (pdf), UCLA's new laboratory safety committee also encouraged the university to develop a reward system to encourage safety compliance in labs. Does your school or workplace make a point of rewarding safe research practices? What positive ways would you suggest to promote lab safety? Tomorrow on C&ENtral: Some Thoughts on Lab Incidents Previously this week: Safety in Academic Labs; Evaluating Safety; Personal Protection from Fire; Tampering with Evidence? Photo credit: Dow...

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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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Personal Protection from Fire
Aug04

Personal Protection from Fire

When Sheri Sangji was injured in a laboratory fire at the University of California, Los Angeles, the extent of her injuries—second and third degree burns to 43% of her body, as well as heat damage to her eyes—perhaps could have been reduced had she been wearing appropriate personal protective equipment. "Cal/OSHA said the lack of a lab coat was the single most significant factor in the severity of the burns that led to Sangji's death," according to a UCLA press release. But a standard cotton lab coat does not provide much protection from fire, at least not unless the coat can be removed quickly enough to prevent the fire from spreading to the wearer’s clothing, says David Greenhalgh, a professor and chief of burn surgery in the UC Davis Health System and chief of staff for the burn center at Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California. Cotton and silk are very flammable, Greenhalgh says, while rayon burns easily but not as intensely, wool is difficult to ignite, and polyesters and nylon tend to melt and limit the spread of flames. He advises that researchers handling flammable materials use special flame-resistant lab coats. When asked whether Sangji’s injuries could also have been lessened if the laboratory shower had been used to put out the flames rather than a lab coat, Greenhalgh says that the important thing is not how a fire is put out, but how quickly. “Stop, drop, and roll” is still the best approach if a shower or fire blanket isn’t nearby, he says, since running across a room will fan the flames. Greenhalgh adds that showers are actually not recommended for extensive burns under typical circumstances, because the skin normally provides a thermal barrier and a cold shower can lead to hypothermia in a badly burned victim. In a lab incident, however, a shower may still be necessary for decontamination purposes. Lab coats, of course, don't protect your hands. There isn't an adequate solution for hand protection, says Neal Langerman, the founder of the company Advanced Chemical Safety and a consultant to the American Chemical Society's (ACS) Committee on Chemical Safety. Truly flame-resistant gloves are bulky, so a wearer loses dexterity and thereby introduces risk of another sort. Many of the people Langerman works with choose to wear lightweight gloves that offer minimal fire protection, accepting that their hands are at risk of getting burned, he says, adding that  "I don't like it but I don't have a good workaround." A tight-weave Nomex, Kevlar, or leather-Nomex pilot's glove will give about 3-5 seconds of skin protection from flames, as well as some protection from flying glass, Langerman...

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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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