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Preliminary hearing started for #DavidSnyder in UC Davis explosives case

Former University of California, Davis, chemist David Snyder appeared in court on Friday to begin his preliminary hearing on 17 felony charges relating to a January explosion in Synder’s campus apartment.

The charges are for reckless disposal of hazardous waste, possession of a destructive device or explosive, possession of materials with intent to make a destructive device, and possession of firearms on university property. Snyder was released from jail in February on $2 million bail. Snyder was working as a postdoc at the time of the explosion; he’d received his Ph.D. in chemistry from UC Davis in 2011.

The purpose of the preliminary hearing is for a judge to rule on whether there is enough evidence to take the case to trial. Deputy district attorney Martha Holzapfel called eight witnesses:

  • Joanne Zekany, UC Davis police detective
  • Lee Benson, City of Davis police officer
  • Scott Allen, City of Davis police officer
  • Paul Henoch, UC Davis police sergeant
  • Kevin Skaife, UC Davis police detective
  • Daniel Powell, City of Davis police sergeant and member of the Yolo County bomb squad
  • Brian Parker, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, & Explosives special agent
  • Jason Winger, West Sacramento police sergeant and member of the Yolo County bomb squad

The court got through direct testimony of all eight witnesses on Friday. The judge scheduled the hearing to resume with cross-examination of Jason Winger on Friday, September 6.
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Friday chemical safety round up

The Safety Zone will be quiet the next couple of weeks while I’m on vacation. I’ll be back to attend David Snyder’s preliminary hearing in the UC Davis explosives case on July 26th.

But first, chemical health and safety news from the past week:

  • The Long Chain of Responsibility Behind an Oily and Deadly Train Wreck: “as long as we depend heavily on oil, we all ‘own’ a portion of every disaster related to oil extraction, transport or use.”
  • Also on the Quebec derailment, the rail tankers involved reportedly have a history of puncturing in accidents and are a staple of the American freight rail fleet
  • Safety boards get unequal access, on NTSB vs CSB: ”Contrast the transparency [in the San Francisco plane crash] with the murky investigation into the April 17 explosion in West.”
  • Regarding the Sheri Sangji case, “I teach graduate students who are about the same age. And they may be talented, smart, driven, capable. But we call them ‘students’ for a reason. They are early in their careers and it’s our job to both help them gain experience and to help keep them safe while they do so.”
  • From Chemjobber’s Process Wednesday, “When ‘old school’ meant a bunker“
  • A New Jersey jury found former Bristol-Myers Squibb chemist Tianle Li guilty of poisoning her husband with thallium. The Newark Star-Ledger has some excellent background reporting on the case.
  • And a California jury found Hasan Ibrahim guilty of attempting to place various hazardous materials on a passenger airplane bound for Germany
  • OSHA strengthens rules for ‘model workplace’ program
  • Illinois hazmat reporting flawed, study suggests
  • Wired showcased some incredible photographs of bullet cross sections. I’d love to know how the person who cut them pulled it off. I was told a couple of years ago when touring Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s High Explosives Applications Facility that the key to machining explosives is to do it slowly, so maybe that’s the trick here, too.

Fires and explosions:

  • Molten zinc was the source of a fire at a Ternium USA plant in Louisiana
  • A fire at Colonial Metals in Maryland was confined to the shipping and receiving area of the facility
  • A fire at waste company Pollution Control Industries in Tennessee “had no toxic chemicals burning, but the flammable chemicals storage area was well involved”; two employees and three firefighters were injured

Leaks, spills, and other exposures:

  • Assuming that the two leaks are the same thing, this story indicates that the “nitrogen” leak at Intel listed last week was actually nitrogen trifluoride
  • Methanol or ethanol spilled at Stanford in a hazmat storage area, I think in mechanical engineering

Not covered (usually): meth labs; ammonia leaks; incidents involving floor sealants, cleaning solutions, or pool chemicals; transportation spills; things that happen at recycling centers (dispose of your waste properly, people!); and fires from oil, natural gas, or other fuels

Safety compliance as a route to better safety culture

Members of the NAS committee tour labs at UC Berkeley

Members of the NAS academic safety culture committee tour labs at UC Berkeley

One of the things that came up at the National Academy of Science’s “Safety Culture in Academic Laboratories” committee meeting a couple of weeks ago was the idea that safety compliance leads to a better safety culture.

Many safety professionals say that a culture of compliance is definitely not the best safety culture. Compliance is about box-ticking on things like standardized training and lab inspections. A good safety culture means that people are thinking through, talking about, and paying attention to what they’re doing so they’re actually working safer. Compliance will come from a good safety culture, but a good safety culture will not necessarily arise from compliance.

Others argue, however, that safety culture can be improved through compliance. “It’s worked well for us to develop our safety culture through ensuring compliance,” because the compliance component promoted interactions between researchers and safety professionals, said Robert Eaton, director of environmental health and safety at the University of California, San Francisco.

That only works if those interactions on compliance are positive, I suspect. In an organization in which researchers do not respect or understand the role of safety staff, then compliance is unlikely to do much for the overall safety culture.

But perhaps compliance is an essential step en route to a better safety culture? Maybe organizations need some sort of base-level safety compliance to be able to move people to the next level–maybe people can’t be brought to think critically about what they’re doing when they’re not even bothering with the basics of eye protection and closed-toe shoes. Representatives from Sandia and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories presented what they’re doing to push their organizations beyond what sounded like more of a compliance culture to more of a critical thinking culture. To the academics in the room, “You’re at a state we were at 20 years ago,” said J. Charles Barbour, director of the Physical, Chemical, & Nano Sciences Center at Sandia. Even if compliance culture is a necessary phase, though, perhaps academia can take advantage of the knowledge in industry and government labs to move people faster to critical thinking and safer work practices.

One more meeting tidbit: Stanford University chemistry professor Robert Waymouth‘s suggestion for how to get recalcitrant faculty on board with lab safety programs was to appeal to their egos–in his words, their “desire for excellence”–with the explicit goal of being better than and informing industry rather than the other way around. (Along with, I hope, a desire not to have their lab members get hurt.)

A final note: At the start of the open session, committee chair Holden Thorp noted that topics discussed during information-gathering do not necessarily indicate what will wind up in the final report.

Protecting a global lab workforce

ACS has posted presentations from the spring 2013 national meeting in New Orleans, and there’s one from the Division of Chemical Health & Safety: “What’s required vs. what’s right: Protecting a global lab workforce,” by Ken Fivizzani, chair-elect of the division. Here’s his abstract:

Organizations tend to respond to external regulations by ensuring that minimum requirements are met; additional internal rules may be added if they can be justified to management. In the case of global academic or industrial organizations, reliance on local regulations challenges safety professionals’ natural instincts to provide comparable safety working conditions to all employees within the organization. Regional managers are often hesitant to commit resources implementing policies that are not required by local governments. Within organizations, site-specific safety policies and procedures should be reviewed for broader application to other locations. Ethical and cultural issues can hinder efforts to establish equitable safety policies to all employees.

Access to the presentations is free if you’re an ACS member who registered for the meeting or are in a couple of other member categories. Here’s the pricing information.

Friday chemical safety round up

Chemical health and safety news from the past two weeks:

  • The June issue of AIChE’s Process Safety Beacon reflects on the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea, when “a series of catastrophic explosions and fires” killed 167 people and destroyed the platform.
  • OSHA announced a new national emphasisi program to protect workers from isocyanates
  • EPA says do not use propane or other unapproved refrigerants in home air conditioners
  • Toxic substances reform legislation could make it harder to seek damages from companies, lawyers say
  • Crowdsourcing toxicity prediction through a computational contest to improve models
  • Love and loss in West, Tex.
  • On the Chevron plant in Richmond, Calif., that CSB is investigating after a pipe failure led to a massive fire: Richmond Chevron refinery’s new boss cut from a different cloth; Chevron plans $1 billion upgrade of its Richmond refinery; Chevron refinery blaze to cost Richmond, school district millions in property tax revenues (because the fire knocked out a main crude refining unit, the refinery’s income decreased, and the refinery’s assessed value decreased in turn; the end result is a loss of $6.1 million in tax revenues for the city)
  • Elsewhere in California, decisions on on a toxic waste dump and battery recycler spark fury in two communities
  • Yale has established a $14 million fund for undergraduate scholarships, graduate fellowships, and other programs to benefit women in STEM fields; the fund is in the name of Michele Dufault, an astronomy and physics major who died in a machine shop accident in 2011. (Because I know someone will ask: The UC Berkeley law scholarship endowment in Sheri Sangji’s name is $500,000.)

Other fires and explosions:

  • An acrylic acid reactor exploded at Shanghai Huayi Acrylic Acid in China, no one was injured
  • Also in China, “Workers at the Shanghai Shengying Petrochemical Co manually put chemical materials into a reactor kettle that exploded and caused fire in the factory. It was not only illegal but was not even experimented before, the Shanghai Work Safety Administration said. … The reactor was stuffed with nitric acid, epoxyethane among others. ” Six people were injured.
  • A fire involving 30,000 gals of butane being transfered from a train car to a transfer station in Pennsylvania badly burned one worker
  • A used solvent collection tank caught fire during start-up of a new process at Voltaix in Pennsylvania. The working theory is that oxygen got into the tank and reacted with something.
  • A fire at Drug & Laboratory Disposal in Michigan “started when a small amount of a chemical being neutralized under a hood by a chemist unexpectedly stared to spark and smoke.” The chemist was working in a hood and the fire was reportedly quickly contained, but somehow rekindled overnight (there’s got to be more to this story–a fire that didn’t involve large stores of chemicals rekindles after fire crews put it out?)
  • A cart containing acid and oxidizers mysteriously started fire at Penn State University, and two students put it out with a fire extinguisher

Leaks, spills, and other exposures:

  • A fire at Quality Distribution in Utah left 2,400 gals of a temperature-sensitive organic peroxide without air conditioning, and some of the drums were leaking. Authorities wound up doing controlled burns to dispose of the material.
  • A nitrogen leak at an Intel facility in Arizona left people complaining of breathing problems and eye and skin irritation

Not covered (usually): meth labs; ammonia leaks; incidents involving floor sealants, cleaning solutions, or pool chemicals; transportation spills; things that happen at recycling centers (dispose of your waste properly, people!); and fires from oil, natural gas, or other fuels

A caution on procedures in organic synthesis journals

Organic Process Research and Development

editor Trevor Laird, founder of Scientific Update, recently penned an editorial on “Safety Culture in Industry and Academia”. I’ll highlight one particular paragraph:

Unfortunately, many companies and most universities are still not using the literature to find out more safety information (and not just MSDSs); for example, Bretherick’s Handbook of Reactive Chemical Hazards is a superb resource to access the literature with respect to safe handling of chemicals, in particular on the issues with scaling up. In the organic synthesis literature, I have seen so many unsafe procedures using perchloric acid/perchlorates and azides/hydrazoic acid, for example, that it is surprising there have not been more explosions in university laboratories. Yet a look through recent issues of Organic Process Research & Development (OPRD) will garner several fine articles which describe exactly the dangers of azides, how to overcome those dangers and to scale up the processes, as well as a book review on this topic.

There’s clearly a challenge here for researchers to figure out what’s a safe procedure and what isn’t. Just because a journal published something doesn’t mean it’s been vetted for safety. Is there a good way to teach students to be appropriately skeptical of literature procedures? Also, aside from using Bretherick’s and OPRD, are there other good resources for people trying to evaluate a procedure for safety?

Have a fireworks-safe Fourth of July

If your area is similar to mine, the fireworks vendors will be out this weekend. “Between June 22, 2012 and July 22, 2012, more than 5,000 consumers were treated in hospital emergency rooms due to fireworks-related injuries,” the Consumer Product Safety Commission says. “More than half of these reported injuries involved burns to the hands, head and face. About 1,000 reported injuries involved sparklers and bottle rockets, fireworks that are frequently and incorrectly considered safe for young children.”

CPSC has a nice graphic with a breakdown of fireworks injury statistics, and there’s a similar one at an attorney group’s blog. CPSC also produced this video a few years ago. It’s a bit of an orgy of ways to destroy mannequins, but it gets the point across.

Here are CPSC’s safety tips for using fireworks:

  • Never allow young children to play with or ignite fireworks.
  • Avoid buying fireworks that are packaged in brown paper because this is often a sign that the fireworks were made for professional displays and that they could pose a danger to consumers.
  • Always have an adult supervise fireworks activities. Parents don’t realize that young children suffer injuries from sparklers. Sparklers burn at temperatures of about 2,000 degrees – hot enough to melt some metals.
  • Never place any part of your body directly over a fireworks device when lighting the fuse. Back up to a safe distance immediately after lighting fireworks.
  • Never try to re-light or pick up fireworks that have not ignited fully.
  • Never point or throw fireworks at another person.
  • Keep a bucket of water or a garden hose handy in case of fire or other mishap.
  • Light fireworks one at a time, then move back quickly.
  • Never carry fireworks in a pocket or shoot them off in metal or glass containers.
  • After fireworks complete their burning, douse the spent device with plenty of water from a bucket or hose before discarding it to prevent a trash fire.
  • Make sure fireworks are legal in your area before buying or using them.

One of C&EN’s staff is a licensed pyrotechnician. She wrote a post a few years ago about how she handles safety at fireworks shows.

Next hearing for Patrick Harran in #SheriSangji case set for August

By Michael Torrice

A Los Angeles County judge today scheduled a hearing for Aug. 26 in the case against University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. The chemist faces four felony charges of violating the state labor code. The charges stem from the death of research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji after a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab.

At the August hearing, the judge will consider arguments on motions that Harran’s attorneys will file before the hearing. In court today, Harran’s attorney, Thomas P. O’Brien, explained that one motion he plans to file is a demurrer motion to dismiss the charges.

O’Brien also said that he plans to ask for a hearing regarding the validity of the original arrest warrant for Harran. Harran’s defense team filed a similar request in July, 2012, that questioned the credibility of a California Division of Occupational Safety & Health investigator who wrote a key report. The defense withdrew that motion when a judge decided to arraign Harran.

Preliminary hearing testimony in the case ran last November and December. The judge that heard that testimony ruled on April 26 that there was enough evidence to send Harran to trial.