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Shale And The Safety Challenge Ahead

Incidents at chemical plants in Louisiana one week ago left three people dead. Two were killed in an explosion and fire at a Williams Cos. ethylene cracker in Geismar. One died when a nitrogen manifold ruptured at a CF Industries complex in Donaldsonville.

A write up by Jeff Johnson and me appears here. The genesis of the story is an interesting one. Last Monday, I called Jeff about blasts. I made the observation that both plants were undergoing work. The Williams plant is being expanded by 50% this year to take greater advantage of shale gas. An ammonia unit at the CF facilities was undergoing a scheduled turnaround.

The process of shutting down, working on, and restarting units is a major danger for chemical operators in a similar way that takeoff and landing are the most treacherous moments of flight.

Jeff is very aware of this. He owns the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board beat. He also mentioned to me that the CSB is overtaxed. Its staff of 40 has 15 investigations to cover right now. It hasn’t launched an investigation into CF yet for want of manpower.

Shale will lead to a flood of construction the likes of which the U.S. chemical industry has never seen. According to the American Chemistry Council, the amount of capital spending for already announced products is $71.7 billion, and climbing. There will be a big chunk of the chemical industry in the danger zone for accidents.

Williams' Geismar ethylene cracker.

Williams’ Geismar ethylene cracker.

Back in March, I attended a talk at the IHS World Petrochemical Conference in Houston by Richard Meserole, vice president of energy and chemicals construction at the engineering firm Fluor. He had staggering numbers. In just a 50 mile radius from Houston, 45 projects worth $100 million or more will require 20,000 new craft workers. All these skilled laborers such as welders, iron workers, and pipefitters couldn’t even fit into the Toyota Center for a Rockets game.

Many of these workers will come from outside the region. Many will be recently trained. And though every construction site—even for a back yard deck—present hazards, are all these workers prepared for the particular nuances of an environment with volatile and highly reactive chemicals?

Let us hope that the chemical industry and those regulating it are up to the challenge.


Now on the Sheri Sangji Case: The L.A. District Attorney's Office

Sangji's hood after the fire. Credit: UCLA

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) last week sent its findings in the investigation of the death of University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry researcher Sheri Sangji to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. The DA’s office will now review the case and decide whether to file charges against the university or any of its employees.

Sangji, a research assistant in the lab of chemistry professor Patrick Harran, died a year ago after being badly burned in a laboratory fire. Cal/OSHA investigated the incident and subsequently fined UCLA $31,875 for laboratory safety violations related to Sangji’s death.

As is standard practice in the case of a workplace death, Cal/OSHA’s Bureau of Investigations reviewed the case to determine whether there was sufficient evidence of criminal violations of the California Labor Code to warrant referring the case to the DA’s office.

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Friday Safety Bytes

I spent some time this morning updating my list of lab safety incidents so far this year. Although the list is undoubtedly not comprehensive, it would appear that September and October were not good months for lab safety. I’d be curious to know if there’s always a spike in the fall as new students arrive on campuses.

The ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety has added presentations from the NorthEast Regional Meetings, held in Hartford, Conn., this month to its technical archives. Included are presentations on:

  • Chemical Safety Levels as part of risk assessment by Ralph Stuart of the University of Vermont,
  • Transferring Air-Sensitive Reagents by Mark Potyen of Sigma Aldrich,
  • When the Chemistry Department and EHS Journey Down the Same Road Together by N. Gail Hall of Boston College, and
  • Update on Prudent Practices in the Laboratory by Peter Reinhardt of Yale University.

DCHAS also has presentations up from the ACS National Meeting in August.

Last but not least, a terrific video from the University of California, Berkeley, team the Sounds of Science, this time  on lab safety. One complaint is that the song lyrics say “Goggles are a must,” but the singer dons glasses. Safety experts say go for the goggles.

Video Tutorial for Handling Reactive Reagents

Haim Weizman, a chemistry professor at the University of California, San Diego, has put together three instructional videos that demonstrate techniques for working with pyrophoric or other air-reactive materials, including both liquids and metals. Head on over to his site and take a look.

Feel free to discuss in the comments if you disagree with the practices shown in the videos.

Learning From UCLA

The six columns of letters in this week’s print edition of C&EN and several more columns in this week’s edition of C&EN Online all pertain to the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, a 23-year-old research assistant in a chemistry laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, and C&EN’s coverage of the accident that led to her death.

Associate Editor Jyllian Kemsley has written extensively about the accident, culminating in a major investigative article that appeared in the Aug. 3 issue (page 29). To recap, on Dec. 29, 2008, Sangji was scaling up a reaction she had carried out at least once before to produce 4-hydroxy-4-vinyldecane from either 4-undecanone or 4-decanone. The first step of the reaction was to generate vinyllithium by reacting vinylbromide with tert-butyllithium, a pyrophoric chemical.

The experiment went terribly wrong when the tert-butyllithium spilled and ignited a spilled flask of hexane. Sangji suffered extensive burns on her upper body. She died on Jan. 16.

The letters C&EN has received on the accident focus on several themes. Continue reading →

Cal/OSHA Investigates UCLA, Again

(Post updated at end.)

The University of California, Los Angeles, is still under the microscope of state regulators. California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) officials paid the school’s chemistry & biochemistry department a surprise visit on Tuesday, Aug. 26.

Cal/OSHA spokesperson Erika Monterroza says that the inspection marked the opening of a new investigation into laboratory health & safety at the university, although she refused to comment on the details of the investigation while it is ongoing, including what prompted it. California law gives Cal/OSHA six months to complete investigations, although the agency usually takes 3-4 months, Monterroza says.
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Sugar Breakdown, Safety Rundown

The very first talk I attended on Sunday morning was by Craig J. Thomas from the NIH Chemical Genomics Center. I wandered in in time to see only the last couple of slides, but I was intrigued enough to ask Craig for more details during lunch. That’s because he and his coworkers are collaborating with Lewis C. Cantley at Harvard Medical School and his company Agios Pharmaceuticals. I blogged about Cantley and Agios a little over a week ago- the company is working toward cancer therapies that selectively target key enzymes involved in metabolic pathways, including the glucose breakdown process known as glycolysis.
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Some Thoughts on Lab Incidents

Sangji was an avid soccer player and planned to start law school this fall.

Sangji was an avid soccer player and planned to start law school this fall.

C&EN has put out a lot of information this week on the UCLA lab fire that led to the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, with the magazine story and accompanying investigation reports, as well as the posts here on the blog. I have a few more thoughts before we wrap up.

First, it’s important to keep in mind that the only reason C&EN was able to get as much information as it did about what happened to Sangji was because the incident occurred at a public university that is subject to public records laws. Most of the reports belonged to UCLA’s fire marshals, fire department, police department, and environmental health & safety office. The notes and reports of people in similar positions at a private school would be unattainable if the school chose not to release them.

Cal/OSHA collected complementary information, but the agency would not have been involved had Sangji been a student. Undergraduate and graduate students, and sometimes even postdocs, are typically not considered to be university employees, even if they’re paid a stipend. Cal/OSHA and similar agencies only have jurisdiction over employees. (On a separate but related note, students also may not be eligible for worker’s compensation.)

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