Wednesday, November 4, 2015

New PhD chemists in industry are "the greatest hazard"?

Also from this week's C&EN, a column by Professor Jean’ne M. Shreeve on academic chemical safety with this intriguing passage (emphasis mine): 
...Engaging in best safety practices must be an ongoing process, integrated into the daily activities of laboratory personnel. Unhappily, chemistry faculty members today are not often aware of what constitutes good safety practices. It is a skill that is being lost as many knowledgeable chemists leave research labs for other opportunities or retire. And new faculty members under today’s pressures vary widely in their degree of commitment to maintaining their safety skills and helping improve departmental safety. 
It has been said that the greatest hazard in an industrial laboratory is a fresh chemistry Ph.D. graduate. But our up-and-coming chemists are not our only concern. It is similarly argued that the greatest hazard in a university laboratory is a tenured faculty member who has never been involved in a serious accident. Some of the recent high-profile accidents attest to both of those maxims. 
The lack of a shared enthusiasm can limit the effectiveness of our safety programs. The concept of a “culture” of safety must survive and must be adopted by all who are involved in ensuring the safety of chemistry laboratories and in guiding our coworkers to safer and more fulfilling lives.
The concept that new Ph.D. grads are especially hazardous that's an interesting idea (i.e. credentialed enough not to get supervision, not experienced enough to be completely safe), but I'd like to see some statistical evidence before I agree completely. (I am sure the Dow/DuPont EH&S departments have those numbers.) 

14 comments:

  1. I'm guessing it has something to do with working in a new setting/using new equipment.
    In my sample size of 1, I never noticed any particular problem with incoming PhD's, either newly minted or with a postdoc. However, we tended to work on a fairly small scale.
    First and second year graduate students seem to have the most accidents in academic settings.

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  2. I'd like to see statistics as well. I think employers just assume that new Ph.D. grads know what they're doing, when in reality industrial labs are completely different from academic labs. I work at a pharma company and one of our new employee trainers always says that he prefers people fresh out of undergrad because new Ph.D. graduates are usually set in their ways and have a more difficult time adjusting.

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  3. Having recently been a grad student in an academic chem lab (I just left with an MS), I have to suspect that a major factor could also be the horrible approaches to safety that a number of chemistry PIs in academia have. If you've just spent five years working for a boss who had made it clear that safety comes second to results, and who doesn't want to devote any resources to make things safer, you're likely to have picked up some bad safety practices as a result. I know I certainly did.

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  4. Maybe that comment was meant to say something along the lines "ambitious fools who learned just enough to be dangerous" etc. Someone who never run reactions on kilo scale before probably shouldn't be unleashed on the plant floor. I have seen "fresh PhDs" doing some pretty moronic things too, but mostly it was Asian postdocs, not people from US grad programs. (Sorry if I sound racist)

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    1. Is your observation about Asian postdocs purely personal and anecdotal or is there a good reference that validates your assertion?

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  5. Without statistics it's borderline prejudice or slander. Any facility of any size is going to have startup review of chemistry at scale.

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  6. Without statistics it's borderline prejudice or slander. Any facility of any size is going to have startup review of chemistry at scale.

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  7. It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest. It may be stated that safety comes before results. But in the academic world, safety does come second to results, and fatigue is probably the biggest safety hazard that is quickly disregard. Fatigue will develop undisciplined laboratory habits, hygiene, and obviously unsafe lab practices.

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  8. I work in an industrial R&D lab. From what I've seen, our greatest safety hazard is the dudes who have been around for 30+ years and remember "how it used to be" without all these "annoying safety regulations" preventing us from getting stuff done.

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  9. I agree with Anonymous November 5, 2015 at 8:20 AM that the seasoned / cowboy veterans can often be the most reckless in the lab. That said, in my experience, safety-related policies and procedures are given WAY more attention in an industrial R&D setting than they are in academia. In my grad-school and post-doc years, safety issues were almost never mentioned by supervisors; in the industrial world, it is a regular discussion topic.

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  10. @ Milkshake- I second your opinion. I am in academia after my stint at big pharma. In industry I was imbibed with the safety, GLP and I try follow the same protocol here but people think I am crazy. The professor is right!

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  11. I don't recall being shown any actual statistics, but one of our annual Safety training courses at the large corporation where I used to work claimed that the two groups with the highest accident rates were new hires and those that had been doing the same thing for many, many years. The first group is easy to see, and complacency was given as the explanation for the second.

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  12. Purely anecdotal evidence (me being a new chemist, and me having to train up new chemists). I've found brand spankingnew PhD's can be a bit of a menace, but only because they are confident, after all they were experts in a small area of chemistry.Industry is a different thing to an academic lab, mainly due to scale (unless its a MedChem lab). Day one of my first Industry Job, I had to do a 50 L reaction, in dichloromethane, and work out how to get the material from the reaction vessel, to the Buchi bulb. As strong as I was, I knew I was not man handling that. Thankfully the Russian head of R&D asked me what I thought I was going to do ("Uh suck it out??" he said hopefully), because they had had a rash of similarly green chemists either try to manhandle it, or push it through with air pressure.

    A PhD makes you fairly competent, but still inexperienced. Post Docs only build on that a little.

    The other problem in Industrial labs? Experienced Chemists who are wanting brand new PhD's to conform to a stereotype.

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