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