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Category → Academia

Assessing changes in lab safety culture

Following the lab safety anecdotes that I posted on Monday, there was some discussion on Twitter regarding how to evaluate whether or not academic lab safety culture is changing. The answer seems to be that it’s hard and developing good metrics will take time.


Is academic lab safety culture improving?

It’s hard to say, but there are still serious problems, according to people posting on reddit chemistry:

I mean these are supposed to be some of the brightest student chemists around, yet the attitude is really disappointing. Whenever I’ve called people out on it they typically say that they “know” what they are doing. The brazen attitude is really pathetic. I’ve heard other excuses like saying how it takes too long to put on lab coats. I’ve seen people refuse to evacuate during fire alarms to finish their columns. I’ve seen people eat while doing chemistry at their hoods.

Everything from “not caring about the equipment/techniques” like not bothering to fill the vac traps with liquid N2, setting up distillations with pressurized nitrogen instead of with a N2 bubbler, letting dishes become overwhelming before dealing with them, leaving wrappers out; to “legitimate dangerous practices” like using a low temp oil bath heated to 325C instead of a sand bath until the oil burned and blackened, dumping 20-30 g of sodium in ketyl stills because they don’t want to clean it, trying to throw away broken Hg thermometers in the trash.

I watched this girl work with god only knows what ligand and metal with gloves still on, proceed to pull out her iPhone and text her friends. Also headphones in lab, we bought a radio so you didn’t have to wear those and block out the world. What if an emergency comes up and I’m yelling for help but your in your own little world listening to music??

And some responses when Chemjobber tweeted about the discussion:

The University of Minnesota shows off its safety culture

The University of Minnesota chemistry department released a new promotional video last week. The department sets a pretty high standard for showing proper personal protective equipment. I spy only one person who is obviously in a wet lab without eye protection.

UMN was one of the schools involved with Dow in the company’s safety partnership with universities. They now have a paper out in the Journal of Chemical Education

, so you can read about their experiences in their own words (J. Chem. Educ. 2013, DOI: 10.1021/ed400305e).

Friday chemical safety round up

Chemical health and safety news from the past few weeks:

Court watch

  • On Nov. 20, UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran had a status check with the judge regarding felony charges of labor code violations that led to the death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji. The result of that status check was another status check scheduled for Jan. 10, 2014. Harran’s preliminary hearing concluded on April 26. We’re going on two years since charges were filed on Dec. 27, 2011, and five years since the Dec. 29, 2008, fire.
  • On Nov. 1, former UC Davis chemist David Snyder was arraigned on felony charges of 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. The charges relate to an explosion in his campus apartment nearly one year ago. Snyder’s preliminary hearing concluded on Oct. 10. Snyder is scheduled for a trial-setting conference on March 17, 2014, and a jury trial to start on March 24, 2014.

Tweets of the month from @Free_Radical1:

Other items of interest

  • The president-elect of ACS, Diane Grob Schmidt, is currently the chair of the Division of Chemical Health & Safety
  • NIOSH released new recommendations for controlling worker exposure to nanomaterials
  • BioRAFT will hold a webinar on Proactive EHS Management & Communications on Dec. 12
  • Residents near an Allenco Energy oil field in Southern California have been complaining for three years about fumes from the site. At Sen. Barbara Boxer’s request, EPA investigators visited the site in October. “I’ve been to oil and gas production facilities throughout the region, but I’ve never had an experience like that before,” [EPA regional administrator Jared] Bumenfeld said. “We suffered sore throats, coughing and severe headaches that lingered for hours.” No word on what’s happened since.
  • Also in California, state regulators are supposed to match hazardous material origin paperwork with what arrives at disposal sites. They don’t. “These so-called lost loads include more than 20,000 tons of lead, a neurotoxin; 520 tons of benzene, a carcinogen; and 355 tons of methyl ethyl ketone, a flammable solvent some in the industry call ‘methyl ethyl death.’” (I’m curious to know what chemists think of that nickname. It’s flammable, yes, but it’s not ranked category 1 for any GHS hazard class.)
  • And, er, ALSO in California, a waste mystery: “more than 100 metric tons of the banned pesticide DDT and industrial compounds known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, have vanished from one of the country’s most hazardous sites, almost a 90% drop in just five years. Scientists are at a loss to explain the decline across the 17-square-mile site, which sits about 200 feet below the ocean surface and two miles off the Los Angeles County coast.” The chemicals wound up there from industrial waste dumped into sewers.

Fires and explosions

  • A Sinopec oil pipeline in China ruptured, then “oil that entered local rain drainage pipes exploded“; so far reports say that 35 people have died and 166 are injured MONDAY UPDATE: CNN reported late Friday that 44 people were killed and at least another 135 were injured
  • An explosion and fire in a cracking unit at a Chevron refinery in Mississippi killed operator Tonya Graddy
  • A massive fire at a Southern Energy facility in Tennessee seems to have started when a methanol tank overflowed and something sparked
  • “Accidental ignition” was reportedly the cause of an explosion at Aerojet Rocketdyne in California; one employee is hospitalized
  • An employee “moving chemicals” may have caused a spark that led to a fire at Chemical Technology in Michigan; no one was injured but homes, a school, and other businesses were evacuated

Leaks, spills, and other exposures

  • A 20,000-gal tank of liquid…something…overpressurized and launched itself through the roof of American Vinyl Company in Florida; one employee died and was found covered in a yellow liquid, while five others were injured
  • More than a pound of mercury spilled onto the ground and into a deep well at an Archer Daniels Midland site in Iowa, “when a contractor was pulling a submersible pump from the well and the mercury seal in the pump broke”
  • Sulfuric acid leaked from a Solvay plant in California, the cause was a malfunctioning scrubber; 13 people in the area were treated for nose and throat irritation and vomiting
  • Chlorine dioxide leaked at Nucor Steel in Arkansas; 18 employees and contractors were treated for exposure
  • Two workers at dental implant manufacturer Hiossen in Pennsylvania were pouring nitric acid from one container into another when some sort of reaction occurred; the workers were wearing gloves but no other PPE, and suffered burns to their airways and upper bodies
  • Gluteraldehyde spilled at an office building in Texas; the chemical was possibly intended to disinfect health care equipment that cannot be heat sterilized

University incidents

  • Five University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, students got to experience safety showers after a plastic waste container ruptured, likley from “nitric acid mixing with a reducing agent to produce a nitrogen oxide gas“; two containers of ammonium hydroxide also broke
  • A mixture of ammonia and sulfuric acid spilled at the University of Connecticut; two students were evaluated for exposure
  • A Syracuse University student dropped a bottle of ethylenediamine and got an emergency shower and trip to the hospital for evaluation
  • A Melbourne University chemical engineering student “was mixing chemicals when a glass container exploded in front of him“; he suffered cuts to his face and arms

Not covered (usually): meth labs; 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

Hearing postponed for #DavidSnyder in UC Davis explosives case

The preliminary hearing for former University of California, Davis, chemist David Snyder on explosives and weapons charges was scheduled to continue today in Yolo County Superior Court. Snyder’s defense attorney is recovering from surgery, so the hearing was postponed to Oct. 4.

UC expands its lab safety program

In this week’s issue of C&EN, I have a story on how the University of California is implementing and expanding upon the lab safety settlement agreement that UC made with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office last summer. In short, UC is taking the legal mandates for chemistry and biochemistry departments and expanding them to all research and teaching laboratories as well as to technical areas such as store and stock rooms. Go read the story for details.

Included with the story is a list of links to things such as UC’s new online “Laboratory Safety Fundamentals” training program, UCLA’s personal protective equipment (PPE) inspection checklist, and the system’s new policies on training, PPE, and minors in labs. As part of reporting on the story, I went through the safety fundamentals training and scored 19/20 on the test at the end. If readers are inclined to do the same, be warned that it will take about three hours, at least if you click through the various bits to get additional information.

UC also purchased personal protective equipment for researchers, including 115,000 lab coats. Part of that purchase involved special-ordering flame-resistant, NFPA 2112-rated lab coats from Workrite in small sizes tailored for women. I don’t see them available now on the company’s website, but clearly it at least has patterns. I don’t know whether Workrite is willing to make more, but it’s probably worth a call if you’re looking for some.

National Academy of Sciences lab safety culture committee meeting in Boston tomorrow

The National Academy of Sciences committee on “Safety Culture in Academic Laboratories” meets starting tomorrow in Boston. The committee has previously met in Washington, D.C., and Berkeley, Calif.

Speakers for the open part of the meeting include Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemistry professor and safety committee chair Rick L. Danheiser. I spoke with Danheiser about MIT’s safety program for “Learning from UCLA.” Also on the agenda is William B. Tolman, chair of the chemistry department at the University of Minnesota and one of the people involved in Dow’s academic lab safety partnerships. And then there’s Susan S. Silbey, who is head of anthropology at MIT and studies “the creation of management systems for containing risks, including ethical lapses, as well as environment, health and safety hazards.”

I can’t attend the meeting, but if anyone else who does would like to recap it for the Safety Zone, please let me know!

Judge denies three Harran defense motions

By Michael Torrice

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge today denied three defense motions that could have dismissed a criminal case against University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. With the rulings going against the defense, the case moves closer to trial. The judge set the next court date for Oct. 3. Harran could go to trial within 60 days of that date.

Harran 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. In November and December, 2012, Judge Lisa B. Lench heard testimony in a preliminary hearing on the case. She ruled in April that there was sufficient evidence to send the case to trial. After the preliminary hearing, the case was sent to Judge George G. Lomeli for trial.

Before today’s hearing, Harran’s attorneys submitted three motions: one asking the judge for a so-called Franks hearing, another called a demurrer, and a third to dismiss the charges based on lack of probable cause. The district attorney’s office replied to each motion, and the defense then responded in writing to those replies.

In court today, the judge started by asking the defense and prosecution to go to chambers to discuss the Franks hearing motion. The hearing is often used to throw out warrants, such as search or arrest warrants, on the grounds that the police or district attorney obtained the warrant using false statements. In this case, the defense argued that Harran deserved such a hearing in part because David Higuera, a senior investigator for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, allegedly omitted key information from his affidavit for an arrest warrant for Harran.

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