Friday, January 15, 2016

The Life of a New Process Chemist, by Alex Goldberg

Credit: Alex Goldberg
Friend of the blog Alex Goldberg writes on his life as a new process chemist in industry. - Chemjobber

“So I was making a drug the other day. Well, not a drug, but a drug intermediate. Okay, so I wasn’t making it, I was watching other people make it.”

This sums up a conversation I recently had with some friends. Even though my position does not allow me to actually touch anything in the manufacturing plant, there’s still something rather awe-inspiring about watching barrels-on-barrels being charged into a reactor that is orders of magnitude larger than anything I’ve used previously. Then I say “yep, looks like a mobile slurry,” and I get back to the lab bench.

I started my first “real job” in July. I also have a Costco membership. These and many other reminders that I’m on the cusp of completing the delayed transition to adulthood that my generation is known and loved for.

And while there remains a great deal left for me to learn, several differences between practicing chemistry in academia and industry became quickly apparent. Broadly speaking, in industry, there’s more structure, and there are more resources.

This is clear in the culture of safety at my company: safety for the employees and for our customers. There is a lot of training for new-hires: including hands-on training, and reading of SOPS, and seminars about Good Manufacturing Practices, and seminars on harassment, and e-signatures and lots of them on everything that light touches.

And we have regular meetings about safety: we discuss near-misses and incidents and accidents (and we learn about the differences between them in safety training) that occurred in the previous month. And absolutely everyone wears his or her labcoat and safety glasses.

Reflecting back on my academic training, I think about what universities can do to make safety an ongoing conversation, not just an onboarding exercise or an annual seminar. If we take long-hours and limited resources as a given in academic Chemistry departments — a topic which merits another discussion entirely — what can be done to build a culture of safety around those constraints? What does your lab and department do to accomplish this goal?

Thanks to Alex for a great post. Follow Alex on Twitter. - CJ


  1. I would definitely agree that the safety culture and reaction scales were the two biggest changes for me as well. I transitioned to industry about 4 years ago. I would also add that being around a majority of people who have a "life outside of chemistry" is a big change.

  2. Great post Alex. You should guest some more!

  3. Glad to hear of things working out well. Enjoy your new life on the Dark Side!

  4. Well remember in industry its about the $$. The concern about safety is more about avoiding lawsuits than it is about your personal well-being........

  5. speaking of safety in the workplace how about this one:

  6. Thanks for the kind feedback folks.

    As for liability (Anon 2:11 AM) - we've seen the legal consequences of accidents in academic labs. Universities and academics are not immune to lawsuits, and the fact that they are not-for-profit does not entitle them to free passes on worker safety.

  7. Anonymous for this oneJanuary 16, 2016 at 8:38 AM

    Ah, academic labs... some of them are good (or acceptable), but my postdoc one was a disaster. Mostly caused by overcrowding of chemicals and people. Wearing a labcoat is a luxury when the temperature is 30C and you are sweating anyways in 70% humidity since the air conditioners don't work in a very old building. Plus wearing gloves has a nice placebo effect for not getting cancer, as you breathe in the air from hundreds of 30-50 year old bottles of chemicals stored on top of lab benches every freaking day. It's not like a lot of the people are not aware of safety. The money is just not there to build a proper, modern chemical lab and that place does get a pass on worker injuries or suspicious medical cases.

    In industry I'm worried about a toxic safety culture like what I've heard about Dupont, where they ended up having too many meetings and ended up instituting a three strikes system, which meant that people didn't report accidents since they didn't want to get an official strike.

  8. Hi Alex!
    In my lab, everyone wears their lab coat and safety glasses. Everyone. All the time. This is easy to accomplish when starting a new group. I'm pretty militant about enforcement, so they know I am serious. At our last safety inspection, the only comment was that we should keep our dated log of when the eye-wash was checked at every eye-wash, rather than having one recording all of them. The only problem I regularly have is people forgetting to close their waste bottle lid. So I got a goofy bird-shaped hat and told people they would have to wear it for 15 minutes every time they were caught not closing the waste. Compliance has improved, but we are still working on it. As with anything, people will do the right thing when they know you really are serious. I also point out that if you store pencils, markers, and pipette bulbs in your lab cost pockets, it becomes more convenient to wear than not to wear. Now if we can just get lab coats that have a shape like a person is shaped, so sleeves don't turn from protection into a hazard anymore....

    1. Regarding the lab coats, what brand are you currently using?

  9. This was indeed very insightful. I was never aware of all the safety that went into being part of that job. My wife is going to school currently to be a chemical engineer so I am sure she is aware of all these things. Great post, keep up the great work and I look forward to reading more of it.

    Mariano Flanders @ Andiamo! Group


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20