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Friday chemical safety round up

First up, our thoughts are with everyone in the Boston and West, Texas, areas today.

Secondly, on the fertilizer explosion in West: Although early reports all said that the incident involved anhydrous ammonia, C&EN’s Jeff Johnson reported yesterday that ammonium nitrate was likely the explosive material at West Fertilizer Co. Today, the Los Angeles Times and New York Times both say the facility had ammonium nitrate. The NYT gives numbers: “540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate on the site and 110,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia.” The current toll is 12 confirmed dead, 60 missing, more than 200 injured, and many left homeless. I’m curious whether zoning laws actually allowed that amount of hazardous material so close to a residential area, two schools, and a nursing home. For local coverage, see the Waco Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

Now on to other news from the past few weeks, skipping incidents and focusing other things that I’ve collected:

  • Mark at Chemistry Blog posted about his grandfather’s chemical legacy:

    A day later I had sorted everything out into three categories: Category 1, mostly harmless (salts, some buffers etc). Category 2, most definitely not harmless (concentrated acids and such like). And the third category I called “What the f*** has he got here!”

  • In the Pipeline posted a video, “made at some point by some French lunatics,” that nicely illustrates the hazards of working with chlorine trifluoride
  • A debate on whether chemistry demos overly rely on explosions emerged on Twitter; ChemistryWorld gathered the tweets at Storify while Philosophically Distrubed blogged that “chemistry explosions are all bang and no buck“
  • It’s been a while since I’ve said this, but it’s worth a reminder: Students and postdocs, be aware that you may not be eligible for workers’ compensation if you’re injured in a lab (reminder courtesy of this story about injured student athletes being responsible for their health expenses)
  • NOAA released updated Chemical Reactivity Worksheet software
  • Accounts of Chemical Research published a special issue on Environmental Health & Safety Considerations for Nanotechnology
  • As OSHA emphasizes safety, long-term health risks fester says the New York Times, in a piece that looks at exposure of furniture workers and n-propylbromide-containing glues
  • The Pump Handle covered worker safety provisions in the Senate immigration reform bill
  • The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board says that the Hanford nuclear waste treatment plant “has design problems that could lead to chemical explosions, inadvertent nuclear reactions and mechanical breakdowns“
  • The April issue of the AIChE’s Process Safety Beacon is out: Have you heard a pressure relief valve chatter?
  • The National Academy of Sciences published a review of the Department of Labor’s Site Exposure Matrix Database, which DOL uses to determine compensation for occupational exposure claims at Department of Energy facilities

Post updated April 22, 2013, with a paywall-free link to the workers compensation story.

From the archives—a surplus of PhDs

Okay, a couple of topics to cover today, and they are related.

First, if you haven’t done so already, you should check out The Watch Glass, a Tumblr which contains excerpts from the C&EN Archives. This endeavor is curated by recent JAEP guest poster, Deirdre Lockwood. Although The Watch Glass is only a couple of weeks old, there have already been some very interesting nostalgic snapshots of chemists and chemistry from the past


This inspired me to have my own peek at the archives and see what interesting things I might find. It didn’t take long. I’d like to highlight one discovery in particular, a small article entitled “Ph.D. outlook: too many for too few jobs.” Hmmm, doesn’t that sound familiar?

Yes, but here’s the kicker. The publication date of this article: August 13, 1979.

“What? 1979? Surely there must be some mistake! That’s a current topic!” I hear you scream. That, or it’s just the voices. You know, the shrill ones in my head.

Okay, the C&EN archives are by subscription only. That is a bit problematic, because not all readers of this blog have access, whether they’re ACS members or not. I had to wait for the library to email a pdf from scanned microfiche (ask your parents or advisor). Fortunately, the article is short, and the abstract, which is viewable to all, contains roughly half the content, from which you can get the gist. It begins:

The fourth in a series of employment reports from the National Science Foundation has been issued. The report concludes that the number of science and engineering Ph.D.’s in the labor force will increase nearly 50% by 1987.

Well, that’s quite a large increase. That’s good, though, right? The result of a productive American education system. U-S-A! U-S-A!!

The only hitch is that the number of traditional employment positions available to these Ph.D.’s will increase only 35% over the same period.

Continue reading →

Now it’s official—it’s not a pretty picture out there

Well, no doubt you’ve had at least a cursory look at the excellent C&EN cover story regarding the 2012 Employment Outlook for chemists. The cover shows a long queue of labcoat-wearing chemists, all presumably in line for the one available position. Cheery.

Even a beer line at a poster session is never this grim.

Image: C&EN

This story is in contrast to some previous commentary suggesting a recovery may be around some invisible corner, and, as chemists, we can get through it with grim determination. Following that, we’ll be somehow rewarded at the end of the ordeal. All we need to do is say “entrepreneurship” three times, click our heels together, and we’ll all be given a cushy new job in Kansas with all relocation expenses reimbursed.

If you’ve been through layoffs and site closures, as I have, and are, in turn, still connected to former colleagues facing a similar fate—again—or are still unemployed after a protracted period of time, this insistence that things aren’t so bad can be, well, annoying. It suggests the problem is you.

A few months ago, my personal annoyance meter pegged out, and I took ACS CEO and Executive Director Madeleine Jacobs to task for portraying the chemistry job market as rosier than I saw it, and for scolding a mother, a scientist who had gone through a downsizing, for urging her daughter to “not go into science.”

Well, although I’m sure my post had little if anything to do with it, a similar message has gotten through. Facts are presented, and they are cold and hard.

Okay. If you haven’t already, you need to read this cover story in greater detail. It’s broken up into several articles, with titles shown below. Under the heading of each title, I’ve followed with a few of my thoughts upon reading each one. There’s much more information within each article than referred to with my superficial observations. You’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t read each article in their entirety, regardless of where you are in your career journey.

Overall, the full story was a struggle for me to get through—not because of how it’s reported (which is excellent), but because it rings so true. I’ve been there. Others still are there. It’s no fun revisiting.

Anyway, here we go:

Continue reading →

Dow and Minnesota team up on safety

Dow Chemical and the University of Minnesota (UMN) announced on Monday a pilot program to improve laboratory safety in the university’s chemistry and chemical engineering laboratories.

UMN is one of the universities benefiting from a program Dow announced last year in which the company is investing $25 million per year for 10 years in research programs at 11 academic institutions. The new safety program is independent of that effort but germinated in the relationship established between Dow and the university, says Frank S. Bates, head of UMN’s chemical engineering and materials science department.

The safety program also extends beyond research programs sponsored by Dow. Central to the effort is a Joint Safety Team (JST) made up of the safety officers from every chemistry and chemical engineering research group. “All of those safety officers will be interacting with Dow and working together to learn best safety practices” from the company, says William B. Tolman, chair of the chemistry department.

At a kick-off meeting a few weeks ago, representatives from Dow and the university agreed that their focus would be on building and sustaining a good safety culture. UMN already seems to have some good procedures and protocols in place, says Pankaj Gupta, senior strategy leader for research and development  at Dow. The task is how to raise awareness of those and how to share Dow’s best practices and adapt them to a university setting.

To that end, in the next couple of weeks, Dow and UMN plan to survey chemistry and chemical engineering faculty, postdocs, and students to get their feedback on the current state of laboratory safety and what needs to be improved. Then the program will try to address those concerns by having Dow representatives visit the campus to work with members of the JST. Some or all JST members will also visit Dow, where they will be exposed to things like Dow’s training program, its laboratory audits, and how scientists approach experiments, Gupta says. Repeat surveys will help determine how the program progresses.

Gupta has already surveyed recently-hired Dow employees to get their input on the differences between academic and Dow safety culture. “The number one theme that came up again and again was awareness,” Gupta says, adding that other concerns included specifications for protective equipment, protocols, and pre-task analysis. “When our new employees come in, they spend about 30 hours in mandatory training before they can set foot in the lab to do an experiment,” providing an immediate lesson that safety comes first, Gupta says. Monthly safety meetings and pre-task analysis, in which peer groups discuss the hazards of new procedures and what to do if something goes wrong, also reinforce that safety is an integral part of laboratory experiments.

One of the things the pilot program will work on is creating an environment in which it is both expected and comfortable for people to raise questions and work with each other around hazard assessment, says Lori Seiler, associate director for environmental health and safety in research and development at Dow.

The pilot program will run through the summer. Then Dow and UMN will take stock of the effort and figure out how to proceed. Two UMN alumni now employed at Dow—one chemist and one chemical engineer—are on the core team working with the university.

Neither Dow nor UMN comes to the program with the expectation that the university will duplicate Dow’s safety program, Bates says. “But there’s a lot of room between what we’ve done in the past and what they do at Dow,” he says. “Our intention is to make things better in a university setting.”

Key to the effort is the JST, Tolman adds. “We decided early on that it would be actual students and postdocs who would lead the effort, since they’re the ones in the labs,” he says. And the interdepartmental nature of the team should strengthen it, by providing both a common goal and a wider range of experience.

The team should also help address the problem of high turnover in academic labs, Tolman says. Even as some JST members leave every year, their replacements will learn from and be supported by veteran members. And if the safety officers are trained well, they in turn will do a better job of training new research group members, Tolman says.

“My own safety officer from my group came in my office two days ago and she told me flat-out, ‘This is going to make my job easier,’” Bates adds. He hopes that the JST will add some professionalism to the safety officers and promote their authority in the research groups they serve. “And to have a partner at Dow who they can consult with and make contact with occasionally as a resource? That’s just fantastic,” Bates says.

Bates and Tolman say that their faculty members are enthusiastic about the program, even though it means a big time commitment for the safety officers. “We agree it takes time, but it needs to take time. This is important and a high priority for us,” Tolman says.

And although the safety officers may have some busy weeks ahead, in six months or a year from now, “it’s not going to take any more time. I think it will take less time and less concern on the part of the safety officers,” Bates says.

CSB, Formosa, and hazardous waste

A drum is poised to enter the kiln at Heritage-WTI. (Credit: Heritage-WTI)

I’ve got a few things to flag from the magazine, both new and old. From this week’s issue:

Jeff Johnson checked in with the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board and has a story on Safety Board Backlog Remains: Chemical safety board chairman lays out plans, stakeholders offer strong support and concerns.

And Jean-François Tremblay wrote about the efforts of Formosa Petrochemical’s new president to improve the infrastructure and safety culture at the company’s Mailiao petrochemical complex in Taiwan: Formosa Tries To Mend.

Regular readers of the Safety Zone’s Friday news round-ups will recall that Ohio hazardous waste incinerator Heritage-WTI had a fatal accident back in December. According to reports, two workers, Thomas Bailey and John Bechak, were separating a barrel containing “cutting oil, hafnium, niobium, water and zirconium” when something caused a flash fire. Both workers were burned and Bailey died of his injuries.

The CSB is not investigating, but it issued a statement last week with a reminder of its recommendations from past incidents at hazardous waste processing facilities: for the Environmental Technology Council to develop guidelines for such facilities and petition the National Fire Protection Association to issue standards.

I interviewed people at Heritage-WTI for an article I did a couple of years ago on Where Lab Waste Goes. From the story:

To lab workers, identifying the waste can seem like a burden. After all, there are plenty of questions that need to be answered: Does the label need a chemical name or common name? Do I really need to know everything that might be in the bottle and the exact concentrations? Is the waste flammable, corrosive, air or water reactive, toxic, an oxidizer, or explosive?

A burden it might be, but accurate waste identification is critical to ensure that the people who handle the waste down the line don’t get hurt, whether it’s the person at your institution who packs the waste for transport, the driver who takes it away, or the people who handle it at an incinerator.

The same applies to household hazardous waste.  I see stories nearly every week about incidents at local waste facilities. Please take the time to find out what your community requires and follow through appropriately. Personally, I’ll be taking a collection of dead batteries and fluorescent bulbs to my county’s facility sometime in the next few weeks.

Should the Bhopal tragedy preclude Dow Olympics sponsorship?

A storm has been brewing in London, home of the 2012 Summer Olympics: A coalition of groups representing survivors of the 1984 Bhopal, India, methyl isocyanate gas leak (*) and now the Indian Olympic Association have asked the International Olympic Committee to drop Dow Chemical as one of the sponsors of the Olympics.

The Bhopal incident was one of the world’s worst industrial disasters: 4 tons of methyl isocyanate was vaporized and released over the city of Bhopal. The chemical is very toxic and can cause eye, skin, and lung damage; the exposure limit recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health is 0.02 ppm. At least 3,000 people died from the Bhopal release–estimates range up to 25,000–and tens of thousands more were injured. Union Carbide, which owned the plant, claimed that sabotage was the cause (*). In 1989, the company agreed to pay $470 million (*) to compensate the victims. Last year, an Indian court convicted seven former officials of Union Carbide India of criminal negligence and sentenced them each to two years in prison:

In his 95-page ruling, Tiwari said the defendants “omitted to do what they were entrusted to do.” Their company failed to anticipate the possibility of a large-scale leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC) and to fit the plant with suitable countermeasures. Tiwari moreover determined that Union Carbide was storing MIC in excessive quantities, that it had allowed maintenance and training to deteriorate, and that a critical refrigeration system was not working at the time of the accident.

Dow bought Union Carbide in 2001, so its guilt in the Bhopal case is by association. Nevertheless, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, minister of Madhya Pradesh, where Bhopal is located, wrote to the Indian sports minister that “it was not appropriate for a company linked to such a tragedy to be allowed to sponsor an event ‘considered as an ultimate expression of fair play, honesty and healthy endeavour,’” according to the BBC. The deal to make Dow a worldwide sponsor of the Olympics through 2020 was announced last year, although the terms were not disclosed. In London, Dow is funding an $11 million fabric wrap to go around the Olympic stadium, BBC reports.

What say you, Safety Zone readers? Do you think that Dow’s link to Bhopal sullies the company and, by extension, the Olympics? What about the International Chemistry Olympiad, to which Dow pledged $2.5 million?

(*) Subscription required to C&EN Archives. We’re working on free access but we’re short-staffed this week–it’s the one week of the year when we’re not producing a magazine for Monday.

Flavor chemistry: The science of deliciousness

Meet Bethany Hausch: chemist, food scientist, and my good friend! Courtesy photo.

Profile: Bethany Hausch, chemist, food scientist and technologist at Kerry Ingredients and Flavours

We are quickly approaching the holidays and it only seems appropriate that I blog about food, since it’s such a crucial component of the season.

More specifically, this blog post is about food science, and about how a good friend of mine, Bethany Hausch, took her chemistry skills into the world of flavor science. We met when Bethany was studying at the University of Illinois, and I’m so happy that I get to blog about her journey!

Bethany is a technologist at Kerry Ingredients and Flavours in Beloit, WI. She works in the Analytical Lab at Kerry where she uses various instrumentation to analyze flavors and study the composition of foods.

“Each day is different and depends on the tests requested from R&D scientists,” Bethany says. “Most days I work on three or four projects.    This could include identifying the source of an off-flavor in rejected product or comparing the flavor of samples in a storage study.  I might also spend part of my day determining the sugar profile of anything from coffee syrups to baby cereal.”

In undergrad, Bethany majored in chemistry (B.S., 2008), but when she looked at the traditional career options available to chemists, none seemed to be the right fit. Food science seemed to have more direct applications to everyday life, so she went on to earn her Master’s degree in Food Science & Human Nutrition from the University of Illinois in 2010 and immediately landed her job at Kerry.

What Bethany loves most about her job is the element of discovery and the fact that she’s learning new things all the time. Since the Analytical Lab provides support to all divisions of the company, Bethany learns about a lot of different types of foods and about the compounds that give them their flavor.

“I enjoy this field because I see the beauty of science while working on projects that are practical and have direct consumer applications,” she says. Continue reading →

CSB releases final report, video on DuPont accidents

The U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board today released its final report (pdf) and video on a spate of incidents at DuPoint’s plant in Belle, W.Va., in January, 2010. The incidents involved separate releases of methyl chloride, fuming sulfuric acid (oleum), and phosgene. Plant worker Carl Daniel Fish died from phosgene exposure.

We’ve already covered the draft report, and it sounds like not much changed between that and the final report. According to the CSB press release:

CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso said, …“Our final report shows in detail how a series of preventable safety shortcomings — including failure to maintain the mechanical integrity of a critical phosgene hose — led to the accidents. That this happened at a company with DuPont’s reputation for safety should indicate the need for every chemical plant to redouble their efforts to analyze potential hazards and take steps to prevent tragedy.” …

The CSB investigation found common deficiencies in DuPont Belle plant safety management systems springing from all three accidents: maintenance and inspections, alarm recognition and management, accident investigation, emergency response and communications, and hazard recognition.

CSB Team Lead Banks said, “The CSB found that each incident was preceded by an event or multiple events that triggered internal incident investigations by DuPont, which then issued recommendations and corrective actions. But this activity was not sufficient to prevent the accidents from recurring.”

The CSB recommended that the DuPont Belle facility revise its near-miss reporting and investigation policy to emphasize anonymous participation by all employees so that minor problems can be addressed before they become serious. The CSB report also recommends the Belle plant ensure that its computer systems will provide effective scheduling of preventive maintenance to require, for example, that phosgene hoses get replaced on time.

For the DuPont Corporation, the Board recommended the company require all phosgene production and storage areas company-wide have secondary enclosures, mechanical ventilation systems, emergency phosgene scrubbers, and automated audible alarms, which are at a minimum consistent with the standards of the National Fire Protection Code 55 for highly toxic gases.

The CSB video is, as always, worth watching: