|Chart by Chemjobber. Photo credit: Thomas Klapoetke|
Jyllian Kemsley linked to an 2008 article where she explored the safety standards that well-regarded academic explosives labs use, such as the Klapoetke lab (a frequent subject of Derek Lowe's Things I Won't Work With.) They are:
- a reliance on manipulating small quantities of material (no more than a few hundred milligrams), specialized equipment for dealing with small quantities
- "collective basic guidelines" and one-on-one meetings with the PI to reiterate them
- a buddy system, including peer review of upcoming procedures
- tiered access to amounts and kinds of energetic compounds, based on experience and lack of incident
- forms to force consideration of safety during experiments
- forcing out students who will not comply
By contrast, what is the sum total of evidence of training at the Weeks lab?
- Page 5 of the EHS accident report: "Laboratory staff stated they have had some training at one time or the other. The training was not complete and there are no records of such training."
- Page 11: "Said she had not been given any training."
- Page 14: "The type of training he received was given by [blocked out] had told him that he should wear a lab coat, goggles and gloves, but [blocked out] himself did not wear any of these items himself. No EH&S training was taken either.
- Page 17: "A Post doc (Raj) verbally told me how to operate the equipment. [Re safety training] Did not have any."
- Page 25: [With Mr. Brown himself re safety training] "No formal training. Just kinda you learn as you go thru the courses... But no specific training after arriving at the graduate school."
The Weeks lab was also short on safety equipment, with no blast shields and safes for the storing of energetic materials. Sure sounds like they were relying on the Finchsigmate academic safety rule: "Don't rub this on [your sensitive anatomy.]"
At the risk of repeating myself, this is why best practice literature is so important to safe chemistry for the young chemist. How will you know how to do things correctly, especially when your supervisors aren't looking out for your safety? Go to the literature, my friends.*
I find it frustrating that two clicks into "Prudent Practices in the Laboratory" (readable and searchable online here), one finds a detailed guide to handling explosive compounds. It gives very detailed instructions of PPE, engineering controls and work practices, including the tragic sentence: "In conventional explosives laboratories, no more than 0.1 g of product should be prepared in a single run... Special formal risk assessments should be established to examine operational and safety problems involved in scaling up a reaction in which an explosive substance is used or could be generated."
In so many ways, this execrable tragedy could have been avoided. Sigh.
*And if you can't find the literature, go to someone who can help you. I don't know how many times as a blogger, I've cold e-mailed people to find that they're incredibly helpful.