Friday, November 2, 2012

What's the best disaster planning for a chemical laboratory?

I am sure that all of you were horrified by Hurricane Sandy and its continuing aftermath, especially the situation with the NYU medical center and the loss of all the research mice. From Derek Lowe:
...thousands of genetically engineered and/or specially bred rodents were lost from an NYU facility due to flooding. The Fishell lab appears to have lost its entire stock of 2,500 mice, representing 10 years of work. Very bad news indeed for the people whose careers were depending on these.
Here's C&EN's coverage of Hurricane Sandy and its effects on both chemical academia and the chemical industry.

I think it is worth having a conversation about whether/if it is possible to disaster plan for an academic chemical laboratory or a small chemical company.* If it's a relatively slow-moving disaster like flooding or a hurricane, one imagines that there's planning that can be done ahead of time (things like regular backups of digital data, etc.) If it's an earthquake or an alien invasion, there's not much to be done. Obviously, physical safety and security is of primary importance. ( is a great place to start for these sorts of things.) Get your car gassed up ahead of time, etc. Board up your house, get your stuff ready to go, whatever.

But are there steps that chemists can take, if they believe their laboratory will be affected by a natural disaster or they might have to evacuate? Here's what I'm thinking about:
  • Graduate students and postdocs, in case of evacuation, make sure that your laboratory notebooks are  at hand, and that you have multiple copies of your digital data. 
  • Attempt to secure instruments (especially expensive ones!) that might be affected by the oncoming storm. For example, here's @TheModernScientist, talking about what to do with their NMRs. (I believe this chemist is in the NYC area.) 
  • I think there should be an effort to power down or decommission any obvious chemical hazards. I'm thinking about the clich├ęd THF still or what have you. 
Readers, what do you think? Am I crazy for thinking about this stuff? Do you have experience from Katrina, Midwest floods or crazy blizzards that you can share? 

*(I'm basically saying that if you work at a large company, they should have the resources to deal with this on their own; it's much less likely that you'll be like See Arr Oh, chainsawing a tree out of the boss' driveway, or whatever. Whatever relationship you have with a large corporation, it is unlikely that they'll rely on you, the individual chemist for disaster planning, except for maybe the laboratories. Correct me if I'm wrong, naturally.) 


  1. No, you aren't crazy. I think its very important to think about these issues in any lab. I've dealt with only power outages, but even those are a hassle, especially if you have fridges/freezers full of smelly/volatile/sensitive chemicals that you are worried about. I have worked in areas with a history of earthquakes (west coast) and we tried to think about that when storing equipment and chemicals in the lab too.

  2. Contingency plans are always great to have, but I wonder how useful they really are. Most of the major incidences that have happened close to me occurred with no warning. Burst pipes, solvent still fires and faulty wiring get less press than hurricanes, but there's a lot more of them.

    I'd say the best solution is to minimize risk as much as you can (self-link), by religiously backing up data or using cloud servers, storing intermediates in safe locations, and planning your equipment layout.

    1. "Everyone has a plan, until you get punched in the mouth."

      -Mike Tyson

  3. during rolling blackouts which were all too common in CA in 2001-2002, our labs had a disaster plan for when a blackout was announced in our area. We'd split up, power down the expensive equipment then evacuate due to the loss in air flow.

  4. Ahead of Ike all of this stuff was done. What no one planned for, though, was to not be allowed back to Galveston Island for more than a week. The generators ran out of gas and patients at the hospital took priority when things were brought back online at the start. All freezers, incubators, and refrigerators (among other things) were lost. Something similar happened at Memorial Herman in Houston during Allison.

    At my current place of employment we do have a hurricane plan which involves protecting the equipment. We unplug everything that doesn't have to run continuously. That stuff is put on battery back-up, APS, etc. Team leaders are responsible for that. Animals are still housed in the basement, but the building is built on a very large hill. I AM concerned that we wouldn't be able to access the animals because the security system is electronic and extremely buggy. The animals wouldn't drown, but they might starve, dehydrate, overheat, etc if we have a catastrophic event.

    My take on the NYU thing is that even if the mice and freezers weren't held in the basement and were on higher floors, the generator just didn't start. [I don't know, are they still without power?] That certainly wasn't expected, which is why the hospital had to evacuate. I feel for everyone involved. It's the worst thing that could possibly happen.

    Also, if you have federal funding, aren't you required to have an off-site backup of your data? I believe it even covers non-digital data.

  5. The best disaster planning is to avoid the disaster in the first place if possible.

    As I noted on Lowe's site, if you are at a site in a floodplain (a 1% chance of flooding per year), you have a 26% chance of being flooded in 30 years. In general, if you get flooded, that is a deliberate choice that someone made to save money at some point. Hurricanes aren't a surprise. Neither are earthquakes. Only the precise timing.

    If those things are a problem, is your workplace really safe? Or viable?

  6. @anon 2:42 -
    Nowhere is safe. Disasters cannot be avoided completely. If it is not hurricanes it is risk of tornados, blizzards, power outages, earthquakes, wildfires, tsunamis, or man-made diasters such as riots. I have lived and worked in many places - all had substaintial risk of at least one type of disaster.

  7. The Disaster planning for chemical laboratory for suppliers, which provides the basic security of liquid substances. Primary importance is of physical safety and to remove chemical hazards also.