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Does safety harm the US chemical industry?

C&EN has a meeting with its advisory board this week. One of our advisers is In the Pipeline blogger and Vertex Pharmaceuticals chemist Derek Lowe, and he blogged on Monday looking for feedback on C&EN that he could bring to us.

I was going through the comments this morning–yes, we are always open to constructive criticism–and at the very end, a few safety-related responses emerged:


But I regret the lack of proper investigation into the reasons why costs are so much lower in other countries. When my enviromental health and safety officer insists that I perform calorimetry on every step of a route which uses a material containing an aromatic nitro group, tells me to reduce my usage of chlorinated solvents and asks me to separate and bag/bottle all my waste into five different streams and fill in forms in triplicate to get rid of each one, is it any surprise that I choose to send that work to India where they’ll do it cheaper and quicker than I can. No questions asked about environmental standards. No questions asked about accidents in those labs.

Should I feel guilty that I know some were hospitalised last year as the result of lab fires and an uncontrolled exothermic reaction or should I just enjoy the cost savings?


Our foreign competitors are brutally efficient. They barely waste any time during school or on the job that does not increase their productivity. If that means discarding safety, I think they will do it. … The outsourcing is unstoppable as far as I can tell. They are faster, cheaper and even know more a lot of the time. Because they spent a lot less time becoming politically correct citizens and much more time becoming economically competitive.

A probably different Anonymous

But I actually don’t think they have to discard safety although I’m sure some do. They just have to get rid of the mindless junk of red tape that most big companies impose on their research staff, none of which makes us safer, just less competitive.

What do you think, readers? Do U.S.–and, I would think, Canadian and European–environmental health & safety requirements hinder competitiveness? If so, is that an appropriate price to pay to ensure worker and environmental well-being? Is there a better way to do it that would maintain safety but not be a drain on productivity?

More on the perils of triethoxysilane

Another hat tip to a colleague, this time Stephen Ritter, for a new letter published late last week in Organic Process Research & Development

“On the Perils of Unexpected Silane Generation” by AstraZeneca scientist Andrew Wells.

…it should never

be assumed that reaction mixtures containing reducible substrates, (EtO)3SiH and Lewis acids, will not generate SiH4, and the use and scale-up of any such process should be undertaken with great caution and with high regard for potential hazards of unexpected generation of SiH4. Safer alternatives to (EtO)3SiH that cannot lead to SiH4 generation should always be considered before the use of (EtO)3SiH. Some examples are tetramethyldisiloxane(14) and polymethylhydrosiloxane.(7, 15)

Yes, The emphasis on never is in the original text.

7. Coumbe, T. et al. Tetrahedron Lett. 1994, 35, 625
14. Petit, C. et al. Organometallics 2009, 28, 6379
15. Lawrence, N. J. et al. J. Chem. Soc., Perkin Trans. 1 1999, 23, 3381

Sodium azide + acid = boom

C&EN has had a few recent letters, including one this week, on the hazards of working with sodium azide. The string:

November 9, 2009, from Robert Seibert

Steven V. Ley’s letter reminded me of a similar accident that occurred in the late 1940s at a company where I worked as a control chemist (C&EN, June 8, page 4). Although I was not a witness, I seem to remember that the chemical operator was adding sodium azide to a reactor. The process had been in trial use for six months without a glitch or difficulty.

It was midmorning, and an approved crew composed of personnel from research, pilot plant, the safety department, and others had gathered around the open reactor to approve the process when the batch exploded. Seven employees were killed, and others were badly injured. …

I remarked at the time that the cause of the explosion must have been wet methanol, the solvent in the reactor. … Like metallic sodium, sodium azide and magnesium nitride are unforgiving when added to wet methanol.

January 11, 2010, from Cesar Aliaga

Because no further details about the contents of the reactor are given, there is nothing I can say about it but to clarify that NaN3 does not form explosive compounds when dissolved in water. Besides its toxicity, the danger associated with NaN3 is its ability to form explosive azides when reacted with heavy metals such as lead, copper, zinc, cadmium, or nickel.

April 5, 2010, from Kent Richman of American Pacific Corp.

Incompatibility of sodium azide with certain heavy metals is well-known. However, the reactivity of NaN3 with acids to form hydrazoic acid is not well publicized. The formation of hydrazoic acid, and in particular condensation of neat hydrazoic acid, must be avoided under all possible conditions.

I took a spin around the web to see what resources included the formation of hydrazoic acid as a hazard of sodium azide: Continue reading →

A safety culture starts with leadership

Today we have a guest post by , vice president of business development for the energy and chemicals sectors at Celerant Consulting. Although his focus is on industry, I think the principles he outlines can also apply to academic environments.

I spoke at the recent National Petrochemical Refiners Association conference in Phoenix on the topic of “Creating and Sustaining a Safety Culture.” Safety performance statistics over the last four years indicate that the improvement in safety performance in the oil and chemical industry is stalling. While just about every company has “zero injuries” as their goal, they won’t be able to achieve it unless they build a safety culture in which safety is a value for every employee of the company. Unless this is the case, safety performance will be driven by management and front-line employees will not hold themselves accountable for their own safety performance and the safety of their fellow workers.

A model that I have used throughout my career to make safety a value for employees consists of the following four elements: leadership, policy and procedures, process safety, and execution.

  • Leadership is the most important element and it must start at the top of the organization. Safety must be the number one priority for the company and it must be demonstrated consistently by management all the time to gain the credibility of the employees. Senior management must set expectations around compliance of safety rules and regulations and hold employees accountable for adherence.
  • Safety policies and procedures must be designed to keep everyone safe and must be reviewed frequently to improve and incorporate changes in regulations.
  • Process safety is not only the law, it is the safe way to operate a facility and compliance must be a given at all sites. Priority for inspections, preventive maintenance and training cannot be compromised. Metrics and audits must be in place as part of the proper way to manage compliance.
  • Execution means having the discipline in the work place where employees adhere to policy and procedures one hundred percent of the time with consequences for failures.

Building a safety culture is not only the right thing to do to keep our employees safe, but it also has many financial returns to the company in terms of increased employee satisfaction, increased productivity, uninterrupted operations, lower operating costs, no fines, and building good relations with customers, communities, and regulatory agents. It’s the license to operate.