Friday, August 27, 2010

Why the faculty members bear some responsibility in the Texas Tech case

Chart by Chemjobber. Photo credit: Thomas Klapoetke
While I believe that the graduate student in the Texas Tech case bears the lion's share of the responsibility (and agree with Sam that he should have been removed), it's worth looking at the institutional factors.

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.


  1. I worked with a grad student like Preston; recalcitrant, confident in his own intelligence/technique, and unwilling to listen to us or our PI when reprimanded or admonished for doing things incorrectly. We're lucky that we didn't do research on high energy compounds, and it's unfortunate that our situation is not unique. These types of people are everywhere and not being dealt with.

    Yes, the training was deficient, that is universal in just about every academic lab I've ever set foot in. Plenty of people survive that by asking questions and being careful. The main problem I see in this story is that his behavior was tolerated. Students should have reported him and the PI should have kicked him out.

  2. All the rules and regulations are useless in a culture where safety is seen as retarding research. Many research groups have to decide how much safety they can afford to remain competitive. Ever wonder why alot of big name chemists are developing Third World satellite research groups? If big industry and big pharma are doing it then pretty soon the only research done in North America will be on computers.

  3. No blast shields in a lab that makes high energy compounds? Astounding.

  4. I agree with this post. The PI should have been talking about safety weekly at group meetings. And the new student (who was not injured, but was working on the reaction) should have been well trained BEFORE he or she was working in lab.

    On the other hand, maybe the PI became complacent, because 100 mg of the stuff probably "explodes" like those little white pop bombs we used to buy at toy stores.

  5. I 2nd the encouragement to go to "Prudent Practices" as our PI did have a copy of both Handling and Disposal (when was two separate books) and was a great resource in grad school. These books did not always contain the specific compound of interest but could find related classes or sound foundational guidance.


  6. How about the flip side of the comments:

    October 14th entry of lab book "42 mg" of compound made.

    "To perform the tests that they wanted, they made 10g but were aware thet they should only make 100mg or less." I think you'll see the comment throughout that there was a 100 mg limit.

    "You had reveiwed the literature before you ever started, right? Yeah..."

    "I would say I usually made 200 mg or 150 mg or something like that"

    "OK, and how much were you instructed to work with and by whom?... I would say about the same amount, by my advisor" - read the next couple sections in the interview to get a better idea of what happened.

    How about taking TATP home? I guess we should all be frisked before leaving the lab?

  7. I am confused. The 2008 article linking to the Klapotke says they use 150-250 mg scale (looks like the same scale as the student at Texas was quoted as doing). You highlight how safe that lab is yet you go and quote "Prudent practices in the lab" which says there is a 100 mg limit. Yet in the CEN article, the 'experts' say that up to 500 mg can be made.

    So which is it?

  8. Anon3:15:

    That's a good catch. It appears that different groups have different standards, as to what the upper bound should be. All appear to be well-below 10 grams.

    What do you think it should be?

  9. What does it matter which one is right if the students don't follow the instructions? My point is that you damn the Texas lab but hail the German lab when it appears to me that their scale is the same. I would argue that a blast shield would not be needed if the amount was as low as suggested by all the different people (under 500 mg).

    Also, in your article, you imply the German lab is super safe (end of the arrow), but then have the following "tiered access to amounts and kinds of energetic compounds, based on experience and lack of incident." Kind of implies that they have accidents or is that different than an incident?

  10. Maybe I should define why a blast shield would not be needed in my above post before you jump on me. It actually comes from your link to prudent practices in the lab section on energetic materials where they state that a fume hood sash is acceptable for minor explosions.

  11. My point is that you damn the Texas lab but hail the German lab when it appears to me that their scale is the same.

    Perhaps the scale is the same, but the lab safety culture is quite different and (it appears) better. Do you disagree?

  12. With a data point of n=1, I would agree with you if you are using this specific accident as that data point. It is easy to be an armchair quaterback after the fact and let's face it, on limited information.

    What needs to be done is to have a discussion on academic lab safety in a general sense instead of picking on individual incidents because it is easy to place blame but that does not change the situation. There are far more accidents (UCLA-2009) and even explosions (Missouri-2010, Texas A&M-2010, Liverpool-2009, Calgary-2010) which have injured students and it is easy to just say 'training' or incompetant PI (if it were a company the accident would be due to 'training' and management/supervision - just read any CSB report, they are all the same conclusions). Even the best trained and the most competant people have accidents. Why? How many more accidents go unreported in academic settings?

    Why not dig into this deeper and come up with reasons why academic labs are 'unsafe.' This should not be limited to energetics. Maybe the German research culture is much better, or maybe they don't report accidents openly like the US (I am not saying this is at all true but the US media is very different than in many places in Europe)...

    Finger pointing at the student or the PI is not a solution to making this, or any, lab 'safer.'.

  13. Anon, how exactly does one define "minor"? 10 mg, 100 mg, 500 mg? And how do you even know what will be "minor" when you're at the point of characterizing new energetic materials?

    I don't think any chemist would claim that there should be no accidents in research labs, whether they're industrial, governmental, or academic. Some things in chemistry (or any science) are inherently dangerous and need to be recognized as such.

    I think the point is that, with supervision and training, the risks can be minimized. The key for the Klapoetke lab (or any of the other people I've spoken with about how to handle energetic materials) is not the amounts they make but that the people in the lab recognize the danger inherent in what they do, expect that incidents will happen, and prepare for and conduct their experiments accordingly--so that when something does blow up, those doing the experiment (or those around them) don't get hurt. And people who don't act responsibly don't get to continue working there.

  14. I went to Germany (Braunschweig) for my doctorate in the early 1990s and can say that in general, Germans are not safer chemists than Americans: during my 3.5 years there, I can remember three explosions that rocked the building:
    (a) large scale preparation of some pyrophoric phosphine ignited,
    (b) closed system distillation exploded (that one knocked out the safety windows),
    (c) sodium wire press dropped onto 2 L of toluene, igniting it (don't ask me why one needs to dry toluene over Na-wire...).

    Over the same time frame, there were two major university accidents that occurred elsewhere in Germany:
    (d) chemical stores fire, in which a graduate student died (I can't remember where that was)
    (e) exploding rotavap from peroxide-containing ether (Universit├Ąt Freiburg, grad student loses several fingers on one hand). Germans aren't more safe, they just don't talk very much about their accidents (maybe that has changed since then).

    The absolute case was at the University of Basel, where a discouraged undergraduate tried to ignite the solvent waste disposal containers and then kill himself with his military-issue automatic rifle. He succeeded in both instances, although the automatic sprinkler system saved my chemical institute. So: regarding this student in Texas: you just never know.....

  15. I haven't done the literature search on her but was the PI really experienced with energetic compounds? i can imagine a young prof writing a grant proposal that is outside of their experience area, not having personal experience with the safety protocols, and not expecting their students to follow other lab's guidelines...

  16. Anon9:28a: According to this comment ( from Jyllian Kemsley, both had research experience in energetic materials.


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