“Overall, there was clearly a lack of proper hazard assessment,” Tolman continues. “They didn’t stop and say, ‘This is a really dangerous procedure. Should we be doing this at all, or should we be taking extra precautions?’ ” The lab became complacent after doing the reaction several times without incident, he believes. And warnings included with literature protocols were “pretty lame,” he says.
Tolman notes that no lab in his department has the proper equipment to allow the reaction to be performed safely at the 200-g scale. He has now set a limit of 5 g for any procedure involving azide.
Tolman announced that limit and other follow-up actions in a department-wide meeting in July at which he discussed the incident investigation findings. What he calls a “lively” 45-minute discussion ensued. Such meetings are important for leaders to publicly acknowledge the importance of significant incidents and show support for discussing safety concerns, Tolman says. “The emphasis was not on assessing blame,” he adds, “but rather on what we should all do to improve risk assessment.”
In addition to limiting the scale of azide reactions, Tolman ordered lab groups in his department to assess their standard operating procedures and update them if necessary. The goal was to get everyone to stop and think about whether they’re doing anything that is potentially hazardous, whether they have a procedure for that activity, and whether that procedure is correct, he says. That lab self-assessment was completed in August, and the department’s safety committee is now working out how to do a peer review of the methods.The remainder of the article discusses the "safe operation cards" that label what reaction is being run in a hood and what the potential hazards might be. There's also a renewed focus on safety meetings, hazard assessment and getting students to think about what potential risks might lie behind their experiments. As with all procedural changes, an accurate assessment of whether or not this will do any good will come 5 to 10 years from now.
I would like to know a little more about the reasoning behind the 5-gram azide limit. (UPDATE: Prof. Tolman explains more.) Also, what are general limits around the academic chemistry community? (The Sharpless laboratory at Scripps is probably the most concentrated collection of organic azides in academic chemistry -- what are their internal procedures?) I tend to think hard limits on reaction scale are less than useful, but hey, maybe they have some DSC data to back this up.
I cannot help but contrast the University of Minnesota's response to this event to what happened almost 6 years ago at UCLA with the Sheri Sangji case. Between now and June (5 months?), they've published a safety letter to the chemistry community on what happened and how to avoid it. You'd think that the millions of dollars coughed up by UCLA would have produced a similar document, but I don't think that's happened. (There's an argument to be made that the main difference between that incident and this one has been the presence/absence of lawyers, too.)