Monday, September 17, 2012

Letter: "... the responsibility for chemical safety ultimately rests with the individual."

From this week's C&EN, a letter that encapsulates a common opinion among chemists about the #SheriSangji case:
I am offended by a system that believes that prosecuting a chemistry professor for the accidental death of a student will somehow change the inherent danger a modern research lab presents (C&EN, Aug. 13, page 34). Although it is unfortunate that a chemical accident claimed the life of anyone, the responsibility for chemical safety ultimately rests with the individual. 
As a graduate student in the 1990s, I was on the safety committee for three years and lectured to first-year graduate students in a short course on chemical safety. Our overzealous safety labeling and material safety data sheets tend to add more noise to the signal, often obscuring the true dangers. The label on a bottle of sand from Sigma-Aldrich will cause you to avoid the beach for good. 
For this reason, I focused on chemicals that will kill you if mishandled. Butyllithium and most other pyrophoric liquids fall into this category. These special chemicals can be used safely but demand respect and practice. Fifty microliters of butyllithium squirted into an empty fume hood will create an impressive fireball that should make the user think more than twice about proper handling. The larger syringe the student was using will easily pull out when it reaches near-maximum capacity. 
Nothing that can be said will bring the student back to life, especially prosecuting this professor. But this event and other tragedies in the history of chemistry should remind all chemists to be knowledgeable and respectful in their research because the stakes are so high. 
By Mark Morey
Santa Barbara, Calif.
There's an interesting debate about the point at which "the responsibility for chemical safety ultimately rests with the individual", a sentiment that I more-or-less support. I think it's fair to say that if the incident had happened with a "Dr. Sangji" or a "Principal Scientist Sangji" that the tone of a lot of commentators (including myself) would be different. I don't think Ms. Sangji had reached the point at which the preponderance of chemical safety was resting on her shoulders.

What I believe that Dr. Morey misses is the legal aspect, in which Professor Harran has been arraigned on violation of worker safety laws. I don't think that he recognizes that aspect of the case in his letter.

7 comments:

  1. That's exactly how I was trained, and how I train. "Look, here's BuLi, now here's BuLi on kimwipe. And that's what t-BuLi, does." 2 minutes to demonstrate and a lifetime of respect.
    As to prosecution of Harran, my current opinion is that it's unfair to him on trial while UC gets away scot-free.

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  2. It is well established that a modern research lab presents inherent dangers. In my experience, (I was in grad school in 1990-ies), useful safety training (such as appropriate handling techniques for reactive chemicals) largely occurred when a more experienced grad student or postdoc would demonstrate a procedure to a 1st year grad student. The techniques for the same chemical could vary widely. The training was based on specific project needs. Knowledge gaps were pretty much inevitable. Our professor was one of those rare few who were truly concerned about the students, and we got more emphasis on safety - and yet there was an rather serious accident in out lab involving a grad student (3rd or 4th year, not a complete novice). The student was hospitalized (no long-term consequences, fortunately).
    Academic culture encourages "on the fly", "shoestring" experiments that require more safety planning than the more streamlined procedures you encounter in the industry. Yet the routine (and highly useful) safety reviews we get in industry prior to initiation of experiment are missing in academia. There simply isn’t anyone to perform this function for an academic lab - “on paper” chemistry analysis, as well as reaction calorimetry experiments.
    The pressure to deliver is very high on the young chemists whose professional future depends on one person only - their professor. Safety concerns in academic environment may well sound like an admission of ineptitude or insufficient dedication to your work. And let's not go into professors' personalities. A senior researcher who boasts of washing his hands with DCM would be rightly perceived as an idiot by industrial chemists, but students may well be convinced that he is a model to emulate.
    I’d say that the head of an academic research lab has a very high level of responsibility when it comes to safety of people working for him – higher than anybody else. The reality is that he/she is the first and last line of defense.
    Ultimately, one could say that professor Harran is unfairly used as a scapegoat. But the tragedy that occured shows that the culture of meaningful safety practice only exists to a very limited extent in academia, where it is needed the most.

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  3. I always remember Mike Rowe's TED talk where he realizes he's been looking at the idea of workplace safety the wrong way. While working in the Bering sea on a crab boat, he was working in an exceptionally dangerous area in 50-ft seas, and he went to ask the captain about OSHA and workplace safety. "Son, I'm the captain of a crab boat -- my responsibility isn't to get you home alive, it's to get you home rich. If you want to get home alive, that's on you."

    That said, the legal particulars of the Sangji case do have me convinced that Harran may well be responsible of the specific violations he is accused of. The problem -- which is not an excuse for Harran, but rather a criticism of our justice system, is that these kinds of prosecutions only happen when someone dies. Selective enforcement is great for the prosecutor and great for the regulators, but bad for everyone else who has to live in the resulting damned if you do, damned if you don't system. Including people like Sheri Sangji.

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    Replies
    1. Crazy PI: "Son, I'm a principal investigator in an academic lab - my responsibility isn't to get you home alive, it's to get you published. If you want to get home alive, that's on you."

      ;-)

      Hmmmmmm.

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    2. It's really more like "My responsibility isn't to get you home alive, it's to get published. If you want anything for yourself, that's on you."

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  4. I can't really figure this out. If people in graduate were to be treated consistently as students, then professors and the university would be expected to give them training for the kinds of chemistry they would be expected to do, since the students were not being accorded the status (or pay) of having done so. If they were treated as employees, then the university would have been expected to have a variety of training and provisions for safety, and methods to deal with hazards in the event that they were likely to be unknown.

    Instead, the university/professor consensus seems to be that people in graduate labs are free agents, responsible for everything they know and don't and for having the training that their supervisors aren't able or willing to provide in many cases. If that's the case, then why aren't students first authors a whole lot more on papers, or getting paid a whole lot better than they do? I guess the (alleged capitalist) idea that risks and rewards should be commensurate doesn't apply, or just doesn't apply to cannon fodder.

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  5. i THINK EVERYONE IS MISSING THE POINT HERE. FROM A DIRECTOR OF SAFETY STANDPOINT, THE INSTRUCTOR AS THE EMPLOYER HASTHE RESPOSIBILITY BY LAW, TO TRAIN, ENSURE PPE AND SAFETY OVERSIGHT. HE DID NOT! NO LAB COATES, NO PPE AND MOST IMPORTANT NO DOCUMENTATION OF HSI TRAINING TO HER ON LAB SAFETY. TOTALLY IRRESPONSIBLE AND NOW WILL BE CRIMINALLY RESPONSIBLE. SHAME ON THIS MAN FOR NOT BEING SAFE IN HIS LAB AND NOT REQUIRING SAFETY TO BE ONGOING! AND ANYONE PROFESSOR OR NOT THAT THINKS IT IS THE SOLE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE INDIVIDUAL IS INCORRECT. YOU MUST FIRST TRAIN AND ENSURE SAFETY IS BEING FOLLOWED AT ALL TIMES. OEN MAY SAY THAT IS WHY YOU MAKE THE BIG BUCKS, YOU KNOW $200,000+ A YEAR!

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