How would you have handled this situation?
Three chemists in a small laboratory were moving some old chemicals to a staging area prior to disposal. Many of the chemicals were simply unopened expired reagents, while others had been previously opened and used. After perhaps a half hour of moving chemicals, one of the workers complained of a severe burning sensation on the palm of his hand. When he removed his latex glove, his hand had some minor swelling and redness but no outward sign of burning. His pain quickly became worse.
A quick examination of the chemicals he had been handling showed that most were fairly innocuous, but one was a gallon container of waste labeled “HNO3, H2SO4, and HF.” The immediate suspicion was that some of the hydrofluoric acid had somehow leached out of the bottle or been spilled, depositing residues on the outside. The waste container was a glass bottle, and no HF has been used in this particular laboratory for approximately 20 years. Of the other chemicals the worker handled, the only one with known skin irritant properties was osmium tetroxide. There was no evidence to suggest significant exposure, since the OsO4 bottles were all contained in a box and had not been handled directly.
So what to do? The decision was made to take a conservative approach and treat the hand with calcium gluconate. A tube of 2.5% gel was located fairly quickly. The gel was dated “1993” and had partially separated but appeared to still be viable. The hand was treated heavily with the gel, and a latex glove was then placed over the entire hand. This is all consistent with recommended practice for treating HF burns.
The chemist’s pain persisted after treatment, so as a precaution he was taken to an emergency room about five minutes away. The first two medical professionals attending in the emergency room, a registered nurse and a physician’s assistant, were unfamiliar with HF. The workers didn’t bring a material safety data sheet because there was no way to to be sure of the source of the problem, since the suspect container was a mixture of acids. The physician who eventually arrived was well familiar with HF and the appropriate treatment. Since the hand had already been treated appropriately, she prescribed Benadryl (diphenhydramine) to treat possible allergic or sensitivity symptoms and sent the patient on his way. Later in the day, the chemist reported that the pain had subsided and he had no apparent ongoing effects.
So… what might we have done differently?