Wednesday, May 15, 2019

"The Difference A Lab Coat Can Make"

Via a report in the Salt Lake Tribune (by Courtney Tanner) and help from Twitter, this rather alarming report from the Utah State Legislature about an incident at the University of Utah:
A University of Utah Incident Demonstrates The Difference a Lab Coat Can Make 
In February 2018, an incident in the University of Utah’s Chemistry Department led to chemical burns for two lab personnel. This incident involved air-reactive chemicals that combust when exposed to air, which was the hazard that led to the 2008 death of a UCLA researcher. In this incident, the researcher conducting the experiment and their spotter, who had a fire extinguisher, each received burns. Figure 1.2 shows the lab coat and burns resulting from the accident.  
In this case, the researcher was wearing a flame-resistant lab coat or more serious injury could have occurred. Unfortunately, we observed and OEHS has reported repeatedly that lab coats in general are not being worn consistently.  
Unlike the incident at UCLA, two major differences were observed in the University of Utah’s incident report. First, the researcher was wearing the flame-resistant blue lab coat shown in Figure 1.2. As the figure shows, the air-reactive chemical left burn marks in the material. However, an incident report noted that the clothing and skin beneath the coat were unaffected. The second major difference was that a spotter was present to extinguish the chemical. Neither of these safety precautions were present in the UCLA tragedy. 
After the Chemistry Department’s Safety Committee reviewed the incident, the following improvements to this specific lab group’s safety practices were identified.
  • Use Fire-Resistant Gloves: While the researcher’s nitrile gloves did not melt, second-degree burns were still incurred. Another research group in the Chemistry Department uses fire-resistant pilot gloves, which were recommended for future use when air-reactive chemicals are involved.
  • Build Larger Margins of Safety into Procedures: The fire resulted when the plunger of the 5 mL syringe came out while drawing 4.6 mL of the chemical. A proposal to fill syringes only to 60 percent of capacity when working with air-reactive chemicals was developed, a level significantly lower than 92 percent of syringe capacity that caused this incident. 
This is a good and regrettable reminder that it's hard to learn from our history, even incidents that were famous just ten years ago. I find it a little bit depressing that this incident happened, and that so much of it was predictable from the Sheri Sangji incident, i.e. the lesson from the incident that a syringe must be properly sized for the amount that it needs to withdraw was not followed in this case. 

However, there is cause for hope. If this had happened 10 years ago or 20 years ago, the student would not have been wearing a flame-resistant lab coat, and the researcher would have sustained far more life-threatening injuries. In addition, I suspect that the presence of a spotter with a fire extinguisher at the ready was also a procedure added post-Sangji. Little by little, I sincerely hope that academic chemistry's safety record is improving. 

(Questions that I don't have time right now: What the ##$$ is it going to take for us to get reports of serious incidents or near misses out of industry or academia on a regular basis? There should be some kind of central repository of these incidents that can be anonymized so that the community can learn.)

UPDATE 0515191700: Jyllian Kemsley reminds us about the Pistoia Alliance Chemical Safety Library.

10 comments:

  1. Thanks for the reminder. I am often complacent about wearing a lab coat but definitely a good reminder.

    Your final PS point has inspired me to set something up and see what we can do with this. I am quite interested in lab safety and how to improve it. Crowdsourcing incident reports might reveal some cleaver solutions that others have discovered that haven't been shared. I want to try and set up a simple site with an incident report form and then maybe a chemvoodoo type page with how many people have experienced the same thing and what solutions have been diacovered

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    1. https://www.pistoiaalliance.org/projects/chemical-safety-library/

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  2. Are these procedures usually done with glass syringes? (I ask because the plastic syringes I usually use have a plunger design that really reduces the odds of pulling the plunger out the back... but then, I'm a biologist.)

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    1. Some people insist on glass syringes because they can be dried in oven to remove residual moisture from syringe surface. How much moisture could there be left on polypropylene plastic syringe? Probably not much.

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    2. I don't think glass syringes are overall less safe than plastic syringes if they are not filled more than 60%, and glass syringes have a more consistent resistance. Some groups swear by plastic, some only use glass. If someone switches from plastic syringes to glass syringes they might be surprised by certain things (nitrogen pressure can blow the plunger back, for example). Accidents can happen with both types of syringes, this can be minimized in both cases with proper precautions.

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    3. A lot of the old timers say that only glass syringes should be used for all alkyl lithium solutions in THF because of some BS myth about THF attacking/dissolving polypro. But I can definitively say that I have never used glass for anything in any lab except for manual injections onto the HPLC, of course with the correct tip, and GC, albeit, the 'worst' base I've ever used is sec-BuLi. However, if I were ever required to use tBuLi, I will still use a polypro syringe at about 50% max fill volume...

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  3. The need for a spotter and extinguisher at the ready needs to be more explicit in safety protocols. Whenever I insisted on someone spotting me, it was met with raised eyebrows and smirks from labmates who clearly thought it was OTT.

    I never liked glass syringes. Sometimes pressure build up would too easily push back on the plunger with minimal resistance, which is rather scary when you're holding something like 20 mL of tBuLi.

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  4. Do stupid stuff, win stupid prizes...

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    1. Jerk. Neither funny or helpful.

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  5. Out of the lab for some time, so take it for what it's worth! I always used to cannulate larger quantities into a graduated cylinder. This gave good control over the flow rates and the graduated cylinder was clamped in place so less chance of mishap.

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