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In the #SheriSangji case: Sufficient training and oversight?

Is an experiment with an air sensitive catalyst an appropriate way to gauge experimental skill and technique to handle a pyrophoric reagent? That appeared to be one of the arguments that the defense attorney of University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick G. Harran was setting up last month in a court hearing.

Harran faces felony charges of labor code violations relating to the death of researcher Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji. Sangji died from injuries sustained in a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab that started when she was handling tert


C&EN and the Safety Zone covered the preliminary hearing in Harran’s case. One of the charges centers on failing to provide chemical safety training. In cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, Harran’s defense attorney, Thomas O’Brien, seemed to be building the assertion that Harran had provided sufficient training and oversight by watching Sangji do an earlier experiment involving a Grubbs II catalyst. From Sangji’s lab notebook, here are the experimental details:

Oct. 14, 2008, experiment that Harran observed

  • Air-sensitive reagent was a Grubbs II catalyst, which loses potency on exposure to air
  • Working in a glove bag, Sangji added 63 mg of the catalyst to a 50-mL flask. She then added 2.5 mL of 1,2-dichloromethane 1,2-dichloroethane to the flask, followed by 250 mg of vinyl glycine dissolved in 2.5 mL of 1,2-dichloromethane 1,2-dichloroethane and 256 mg of undecen-1-ol simultaneously over 20 minutes. She lowered the flask into an 80 ºC oil bath and stirred it under reflux for 20 hours. She sampled the reaction solution to run thin-layer chromatography at 16 and 20 hours. She filtered the solution and then purified it on a silica gel column.
  • Sangji’s notes aren’t clear whether this entire process was done in a glove bag or just the step of weighing the catalyst.

Dec. 28, 2008, experiment that started the fire

  • Air-sensitive reagent was tert -butyllithium (tBuLi), which ignites spontaneously in air
  • Sangji was scaling up an Oct. 17, 2008 experiment to produce 4-hydroxy-4-vinyl decane. The first step of the synthesis was to generate vinyllithium. In October, she added 28 mL anhydrous ether and 3.0 mL vinyl bromide to a 200-mL flask. After stirring the mixture for 15 min at -78 ºC, she added 54 mL of 1.67 M tBuLi. She stirred the mixture for two hours, moved it to a 0 ºC bath for 30 minutes, and took it back to -78 ºC. She then used a double-tipped needle to transfer 3.90 mL of 4-undecanone in 6 mL ether to the vinyllithium solution. She stirred the solution for two hours, then quenched it with sodium bicarbonate. She put the quenched mixture in a separatory funnel, collected the organic phase, dried it to remove residual water, and rotovapped it to remove the solvent from the product.
  • Sangji doesn’t say it in her notebook, but she was probably not working in a glove bag to do this reaction. Going by what she did in December, she was more likely working in a hood, running nitrogen lines to the tBuLi bottle and reagent flask, and using a syringe to transfer tBuLi from one to the other.
  • Sangji scaled up this experiment three-fold in December and used a 60-mL syringe for the tBuLi transfer. We know that she did not clamp the bottle, and so was likely holding it upside down in one hand while manipulating the syringe in the other. She was probably on her second or third transfer, reusing the needle and syringe, when the syringe plunger came out of the barrel, exposing the tBuLi to air and starting the fire. Sangji’s clothes caught fire and she was burned on her thighs, torso, arms, and neck.

What say you, Safety Zone readers? Was a 63-mg Grubbs II experiment an appropriate one by which to gauge Sangji’s skills and technique to handle tBuLi at the 54- or 160-mL scale?

Dow teams up with universities on lab safety, how’d the UC “Creating Safety Cultures” webinar go?

Following up on a blog post last spring about a new lab safety partnership between Dow Chemical and the University of Minnesota, I’ve got a story in today’s issue of C&EN delving into the details of what Dow and its partner universities have done so far. Since the program started, Dow has expanded it to include Penn State University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, and each school is experimenting with different Dow-inspired ideas. Also, students, take note:

It’s not just the schools that have benefited from the interactions between Dow and the universities. Dow has changed one of its practices as well, Gupta says. Dow recruiters are now asking questions about safety in on-campus interviews, looking for people who have taken leadership positions or tried to emphasize safety in their own work.

Separately, did anyone attend the University of California’s webinar last week on “Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions.” How was it? Did you get anything useful out of it? I was enmeshed in training and our annual Advisory Board and staff meetings for much of last week, so I had to miss it.

Last but not least, I hope that everyone on the U.S. Atlantic seaboard stays safe and dry during Sandy.

Gloves in the laboratory: To wear or not to wear?

George Washington University teaching assistant Anice Mathew instructs chemistry students in the use of an extraction funnel before they attempt to extract chlorophyll from spinach.
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography (From “Personal Protection: Whither Lab Coats? C&EN June 28, 2010, page 18)

Andrea Sella, a chemistry professor at University College London, has this to say about reusable glove use in the laboratory:

The consequences of using reusables is substantial. First of all, they are moderately comfortable so people wear them continuously – this leads to students wandering all over the place while wearing them – out students use them on the lab computers and spectrometers, the scales and so on, contaminating pretty well everything. Yup, it’s bad practice and that’s what we tell them. But it still happens. Secondly because they are comfortable they lead to some rather thoughtless behaviour – it’s common to see students put a gloved finger onto a hotplate to check to see if it’s hot. A few times they melt the rubber onto the tip of their finger. It doesn’t seem very bright, but more worryingly, it’s probably an indication symptom of risk compensation, the tendency of an individual to alter their behaviour when they feel safer, much as if you play football you’ll tackle that little bit more aggressively if you’re wearing shin pads than if you’re not. …

But there is another dimension to this: waste disposal. By using disposable gloves we end up having to send a quarter of a million gloves a year to be incinerated each eyar. These have been used once, and a careful student shouldn’t really have got anything onto the gloves anyway, so they are probably pretty clean. Isn’t it incredibly wasteful? For the sake of an unknown and possibly questionable increase in personal safety we end up spending tens of thousands of pounds for items that could be reused. And then have to pay for someone to take all this stuff away.

He proposes at the end to have students use reusable gloves. Seems reasonable. But in further discussions with his colleagues, out came this:

One of the comments that came out of these discussions was the number of incidents we’ve had over the past few years involving students transferring chemicals from their gloves to their face, neck, and elsewhere. In fact, if you stand and watch students in the lab – as I had occasion to this week – you see them contantly adjusting their safety specs and scratching their neck, nose, ears at regular intervals. All wearing gloves, of course. And because they are wearing the gloves, they are blissfully unaware that there might be anything on the outside of the glove. …

By providing gloves we are actually lulling our students into a false sense of security. They get stuff on their gloves and even if they’re aware of it, they just assume that because they have gloves on “it’s OK”. Risk compensation works in mysterious ways. …

Now I’m not saying that one shouldn’t wear gloves under any circumstance. Far from it. Clearly there are issues of scale and of context. But what I am saying is that for the vast majority of procedures like the ones we conduct in our teaching labs, gloves may look smart but they have precisely the opposite effect to what we intend.

It’s wrong, it’s wasteful, and it’s expensive. And we have plenty of, for the most part, fairly minor incidents to deal with that probably would not happen if our students didn’t wear them.

So the plan is to go even further and actively discourage students from wearing gloves as a matter of routine in our labs. Why? Because, completely contrary to “common sense”, we believe they’ll be safer and actually work better in the lab.

I’ve written before about schools’ decisions not to have students in teaching labs wear gloves or lab coats. But I know that some still believe that minimum lab attire, no matter what, should be goggles, lab coat, and gloves. Also, you should wear personal protective equipment to account for everything going on in the lab: You may never spill something, but what about your labmates?

I’m curious to hear what Safety Zone readers think: Is there a minimum set of PPE that should be worn for teaching labs (perhaps accompanied by a contamination demo, like Seattle University does with fluorescent powder), or is this something to be considered on a lab-by-lab basis? And what about for research labs?

Getting scientists to take [safety] seriously

I know, I know, I said that I’d get the Safety Zone back on track and yet we still have no Friday round-up. Last Friday I was visiting SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Today, my computer got a new motherboard. (Also this summer: Family vacation. A work trip to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Minor surgery. Lice brought home from summer camp.) I have high hopes for next week, but we’ll see what comes of a certain court hearing on Wednesday.

In the meantime, I wanted to highlight this blog post by Janet Stemwedel at Doing Good Science: Getting scientists to take ethics seriously: strategies that are probably doomed to failure. Substitute “lab safety” for “ethics” and I think it’s pretty spot-on for safety training, too:

Segregating attention to [lab safety] in a workshop, class, or training session. Is [lab safety] something the entirety of which you can “do” in a few hours, or even a whole semester? That’s the impression scientific trainees can get from [a lab safety] training requirement that floats unconnected from any discussion with the people training them about how to be a successful scientist. Once you’re done with your training, then, you’re done — why think about [lab safety] again?

I’m looking forward to her follow-up post on training strategies that she thinks are more likely to work!

Recognizing chemical hazards

I’ve got a story in this week’s issue of C&EN on OSHA’s new Hazard Communication standard (aka “HazCom”), the regulation that determines how chemical safety information is relayed to workers, and what bench chemists need to know about the chemical labels and safety data sheets coming their way.

“Memorize the pictograms” is really the take-home point. To that end, it’s important for people to recognize the distinctions between them. The two groups that I think require particular attention are the three health-related pictograms (human profile, exclamation mark, and skull and crossbones) and the flammables and oxidizers (flame and flame over circle). C&EN Design Director Rob Bryson worked with me to group those in print, but that was difficult to do in our web and mobile formats. We posted online a pdf of the print pages as an additional resource for our readers.

Also in this week’s issue is a comment from Robert H. Hill Jr., chair of the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety, discussing the Safety Culture Task Force report on “Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions.”

And now I will sign off for the rest of the week, as I head to Boston to immerse myself in the Investigative Reporters & Editors annual conference! The Friday news round-up will return on June 22.

The lab is a splash zone

The University of California, San Diego, has a great new video on eye protection. It was produced by the chemistry department’s Haim Weizman, who was also the man behind A day in the lab, To be (safe) or not to be, Flash chromatography 101, and a trio of videos on working with pyrophoric reagents and reactive metals.

Overall, I think the “splash zone” video is a terrific illustration of why it’s important to always wear eye protection in labs, even when you’re not the one handling the chemicals. That said, the safety glasses featured in the video are really designed for impact protection, not splashes. For splash protection, people really need to use goggles.

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.

Developing laboratory safety certification

Responding to a request from several former ACS presidents, the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety is attempting to develop an online laboratory safety certification program aimed at chemistry graduate students. The program ideally would address longstanding complaints from industry that Ph.D. programs do not adequately educate students to work safely in industrial research and development laboratories. A well-planned and peer-reviewed online certification program could be part of the solution to this training gap.

The development cost for online training programs, according to an informal survey of commercial online training providers, is approximately $20,000 for each presentation hour of this type of safety course. This means that developing an 8- to 10-hour course with about a dozen training modules would cost $160,000 to $200,000.

The division is now facing the following questions and would welcome input from Safety Zone readers:

  • How might costs be lowered? What work could be done by volunteers rather than paid consultants?
  • Does ACS have the resources to develop the program without using a training provider?
  • Several organizations are willing to support program development: the ACS Corporate Associates, National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, and Council for Chemical Research. Are there others that might be interested?
  • Is there sufficient demand to warrant developing the program? Can it meet industry’s needs?
  • What topics should be covered, and what is a realistic amount of time to commit for effective training?
  • Is taking an online course and passing tests sufficient for certification or should there be other components?

Related post: Teaching safety to chemical engineers