Earlier this year, a University of California, Berkeley, first-year chemistry graduate student synthesized about 1 g of a diazonium perchlorate compound (R-N2+ClO4–) as part of an effort to explore the effect of the perchlorate ion on a reaction. Working at an open bench and wearing regular prescription eyeglasses, he was using a metal spatula to transfer the material out of a porcelain funnel when the compound exploded.
Porcelain fragments shattered the lenses of his glasses and lacerated his left cornea and his face. The student required surgery on his eye but was not permanently injured and is back in the lab.
He knew he was working with an explosive and followed appropriate safety measures for most of the experiment, but at the end, “he became a little complacent,” says the student’s adviser, chemistry professor F. Dean Toste. The student should have worn safety glasses and used a nonmetal spatula for the transfer.
Toste and UC Berkeley Office of Environment, Health & Safety Executive Director Mark Freiberg have worked together in the months following the accident to figure out what to do to try to prevent other similar events. “We look at it as systemic failure,” Freiberg says. “We’ve spent a lot of time with this student and others in the lab, trying to explore this incident and glean from it as much as we can about how our current, fairly extensive efforts to improve safety were ineffective in this instance...."Back when we discussed this in June, I was a bit confused as to why the graduate student made as much as they did. 1 gram seems like a lot. Doesn't look like we got any answers on that question.
The issue of side-shields on prescription safety glasses seems pretty fundamental, though, and it doesn't seem like much progress has been made there, either:
...Following policies implemented in response to the [CJ's note: UC Regents'/LADA Sangji-related] agreement, the student injured at Berkeley had completed standardized safety training; received personal protective equipment (PPE) appropriate for his research, including eye protection; and signed that he’d read the relevant standard operating procedure (SOP) for the experiment that he was doing....
...Wearing regular prescription glasses may give people a sense that their eyes are protected, even when they’re not wearing safety glasses or goggles. To address that issue, the UC Berkeley College of Chemistry will now pay any costs for prescription safety eyewear not covered by a researcher’s insurance company....There are two separate issues here. First, it's cynically amusing to me to see that the organization has all the paperwork lined up that says "we told you to do it correctly." While UC-Berkeley has been legally protected, somehow the student was still in their lab, using the wrong equipment, wearing the wrong PPE.
(I am beginning to think (only 8 years after the Great Recession) that "systemic failure" is organization-speak for "everyone's at fault, so no one's at fault.")
Secondly, I have a question about the massive, massive problem in both academia and industry of wearing prescription glasses as pseudo-safety glasses in the laboratory.* I bet you that we could walk into any chemistry laboratory within 100 yards to 50 miles of where you are sitting here reading this, and we'd find someone breaking this common sense rule. While I think Berkeley is being very gallant in picking up the difference in costs for prescription safety glasses, I think this is a paper solution, just like the SOPs. What can we do about it? Readers, any suggestions?
*As a young graduate student, I decided to transition from prescription glasses to contacts to avoid the temptation of wearing prescription glasses in the laboratory and thinking "I am still protected here." Any vanity on my part, or that I was single at the time is strictly coincidental.