|Shudder. (Credit: USCSB)|
How are you? I hope the week is treating you well. Thanks for participating in this little discussion on academic chemical safety.
So I'm sure you had a chance to watch the US Chemical Safety Board's video on academic chemical safety. I'm a big fan of their videos, even if they totally creep me out. It's kind of awful to watch videos of these animated figures ignoring obvious safety issues and subsequently dying. I have a difficult time not yelling out "Don't do it!" (like I was watching a horror film or something.) Substituting the drawings make them no less gripping; the closeup on the hand of the TTU student (before the compound blows up) is pretty awful.
What are your thoughts about the incidents and the chemical community's response to them? It seems like I spent a fair bit of time writing about the Sheri Sangji case, all those two to three years ago. It was such a raw red shock at the time -- I can see it in the posts that I was writing. You're not supposed to die from this is still what I remember thinking at the time. I still agree with most of the things that I said: I think Professor Harran bears a significant share of the responsibility, as well as her labmates.
The Wetterhahn incident, I confess, I don't have much to say about -- it just seems like a terrible tragedy and something that couldn't have been avoided (assuming that the video's version of events was accurate.) I personally wasn't aware that they didn't know the appropriate level of PPE for dimethyl mercury. To a bench chemist, that's pretty scary.
...and then there's the Texas Tech incident. I think I've said my piece about it, but I was surprised to hear what the Chemical Safety Board had to say. I wanted to get the transcript right, so I went back and listened to exactly what the CSB investigator (now there's an alternative chemistry job!) said (at 13:30):
With these academic incidents, people like to focus on the immediate actions of the individuals involved and try to poke holes and with hindsight and assert some sort of blame on the individual involved and what we have to recognize is that there are bigger systems at play here that can influence safety...For what it's worth, I think that's true. People love to poke holes (I do!) and there are safety systems that should try stop these things from happening. But as one of the "people" involved in analyzing chemical safety incidents and armchair quarterbacking them, I think there's real worth in doing so. The classic question that chemical workers should ask themselves when confronted with these situations is "What would I have done?" I think it's only natural, healthy and instructive to think through these issues from a bench chemist perspective.
So I'll end with this bit of over-the-top provocation: the lesson to be learned from the TTU incident is "don't do that." Don't make 100 times the amount of an unknown shock-sensitive compound. Don't perform dangerous manipulations without the appropriate safety gear. Don't expose your students to danger by allowing them to be dangerously ignorant of energetic materials safety. Don't allow your institution to be exposed to legal risk from ignorant PIs and insufficiently trained students.
Is there any other lesson to be learned from TTU? Probably. What policy would you implement to stop this from happening again? Can you even do that? I think it might be possible.
[Now to deal with a random leaking pipe somewhere in the lab.]
Note to readers: STEM_Wonk and I will be having a back-and-forth this week on academic chemical safety. Tomorrow's installment with be on her blog.