As I said before, there are a number of chemistry details that Kim Christensen of the LA Times did not pick up on in his informative and poignant article about the incident that claimed the life of Sheri Sangji.
Detail #1: It's not just UCLA that has safety protocol issues
Unfortunately, the talk in Mr.
Ms. (my assumption) Christensen's article about safety lapses at UCLA are, unfortunately, par for the course in just about every single academic chemistry lab in the US. I have worked in the pharmaceutical industry three times in my life (counting the current position). There, personal protective equipment is a religion without par. You simply cannot be in the lab without wearing 1) safety glasses 2) a lab coat and 3) handling chemicals with gloves. At my current job, there are multiple kinds of gloves for various tasks.
In my academic experience, the lab coat was worn for 1) really dangerous reactions, 2) washing dishes and 3) warmth. Lab glasses were commonly unworn.* I recall seeing a coworker of mine who was pressing solvent through a pre-packed silica column with a 10-ml syringe: no glasses, T-shirt and shorts. While there wasn't enough solvent for a fire, a drop or two of hexanes in the eyeball would have stung like hell. As Kyle would say, safety instructions in academic settings quite often amounts to "don't drop this on your balls."
*As an exercise for the reader, check out the blog for National Lab Mustache Day (great idea, btw.) See how many of these photos were obviously taken in a lab environment, without proper PPE. While yes, yes, they weren't doing anything unsafe at the moment, I challenge you to find a similar picture from a major pharmaceutical company's labs. You won't.
Detail #2: Lowering the hood sash wasn't going to help much
The suggestion that lowering the hood sash would have saved her torso is unlikely -- if it's open enough to catch her hands on fire (how far were they into the hood, anyway?), it's open enough to come out and hit your sweater/lab coat/whatever.
Detail #3: Blast shields are for explosions, not fires -- and they're not just made of brass.
The blast shield idea is especially ridiculous. First of all, a blast shield is not especially portable, since they weigh about 25 pounds and are difficult to lift into hoods (I've used them many times.) In addition, they are primarily made up of Plexiglas or some other clear safety material (unlikely glass) with a heavy brass bottom, not "a free-standing portable device made of brass that chemists put between themselves and potentially dangerous experiments". If the reporter had seen one, it is unlikely that he would have made this mistake. (I'm unable to find a picture online, but I will soon.)
Detail #4: Cannulation: maybe safer, but definitely more difficult
Finally, Dr. Langerman suggests that cannulation ("The preferred method is to use pressure to push the liquid out of the source bottle into your receiver through a stainless-steel tube") is the correct method for transferring t-butyl lithium. While I agree with the expert that cannulation is indeed the most preferred method for doing so (I just did 600 mls of alkyl Grignard solution this past week), I suggest that cannulation with positive pressure may have been even more dangerous than the technique that Ms. Sangji was attempting. It is much harder to control (turning a knob of nitrogen pressure rather than using your hands), more difficult to successfully perform (how many working chemists have blown a N2 line trying to cannulate?) and done incorrectly, possibly more dangerous than simple and correct syringing.
I cannot fault Mr. Christensen for these errors of interpretation -- he is not a chemist.
Other UCLA incident news:
"Most chemists I know, when they hear about someone getting hurt in a lab, immediately want to know all the details: How much material was she working with? What reaction was she trying to do? How was she trained? Was anyone else around? In Sangji's case, we should find out." - Jyllian N. Kemsley, C&E News, Feb. 23, 2009. (ACS registration NOT required -- free link!)
I thank Jyllian Kemsley from the bottom of my heart for stepping up and reminding the powers-that-be that the overall chemistry community wants to learn from these errors.
Last, but not least:
It appears that Naveen Sangji, sister of Sheri, has reserved a Blogspot blog on this very topic. Nothing there, yet. Interesting...
UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that Mr. Kim Christensen is, well, a Mister. Duh! Chemjobber apologizes to the good Mr. Christensen.