Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Chemical safety -- a conversation with Dr. Neal Langerman
I had the occasion to interview (by phone) Dr. Neal Langerman, who has his own consulting firm, Advanced Chemical Safety. He is a noted chemical safety expert, quoted in many news articles. I'm pretty new at this interviewing stuff, so I'll summarize just a few of the points that he made about laboratory and chemical safety.
Any errors are mine and mine alone and not to be attributed to Dr. Langerman.
Good literature sources for chemical safety: He recommended (among other volumes) "Prudent Practices in the Laboratory", which is published by the National Academies for starters. The process-oriented (if I'm correct) volume "Bretherick's Handbook of Reactive Chemical Hazards" (available from eBay for only $435!) is another good reference and is expected to be online late this year.
But what about my leisure suits?: Dr. Langerman recommended to me strongly that synthetic materials should NOT be worn (head-to-toe, inside or out) when dealing with pyrophoric compounds. He stood behind his "solid gasoline" quote, saying that if you measure the heat output from burning polyethylene or polypropylene, they are the same as gasoline. Synthetics also tend to melt before they burn, which adds to injuries. Food for thought for all us working chemists.
Notable chemical safety statistics: In the course of our conversation, he mentioned a rather interesting statistic from the Chemical Safety Board:
of the 2400 incidents reported to the Chemical Safety Board, 91 laboratory incidents resulted in injury, property damage or fatality. I find that to be a rather remarkable number, since it indicates that close to 4% of incidents (or 1 in 25) have serious (that is, potentially fatal) consequences.
UPDATE: Dr. Langerman e-mails to correct: in a recent three year period, there were ~2400 chemical incidents that caused injury, property damage or fatality. Of those, 91 were in a laboratory setting. So, that suggests that 4% of 'serious' chemical incidents happened in a laboratory setting. That 91 is still too high. My apologies to Dr. Langerman.
Wow -- it's obviously the responsibility of all chemists to keep that number as low as possible. Thanks, Neal, for an educational conversation and be safe out there!