Texas Tech & Dealing with Screwball Labmates

August 24th, 2010

Chemical Ed with GogglesI just read Jyllian Kemsley’s news article in this week’s C&EN and her associated blog post on the Texas Tech lab explosion that occurred back in January, and all I can say is “wow”.  First off, what great coverage by C&EN—a thorough story with plenty of quotes and even some “supporting information” in the form of the police report and scans of the grad student’s (crappy) lab notebook.

Back in January, graduate student Preston Brown was working with nickel hydrazine perchlorate (NHP) and it exploded.   The story is terrifying to me, but not for the reasons you might think.  Yes, the explosion was violent and left its victim significantly deformed (bye bye, three fingers).  What is truly scary is that people like Brown are allowed anywhere near a lab in the first place. 

Preston Brown is a total screwball dumbass.  Period.  While I hate to hear of anyone being so seriously injured, this guy had it coming.  His gross negligence with respect to his research makes him an a-hole of the most vile order. 

His group was working on a Homeland Security project to characterize compounds that could be used to make improvised explosives, and you’d think anyone working on such a project would automatically have profound respect for the potential hazards of the job.  The PI of his lab even established a protocol that no one was to make more than 100 mg of the compounds at a time, and tests of the compounds were to use ~10 mg of the compounds per experiment.  What did Mr. Brown do?  Well…
.

  • Dumb: Against protocol, Brown made a 10 g batch of the NHP.
    .
  • Dumber: The explosion occurred when Brown was finishing grinding  a 5 g  sample of his NHP with a mortar and pestle because it was “lumpy”.  Keep in mind, these types of compounds are known to be shock sensitive.
    .
  • Moronic:  Brown wasn’t wearing eye protection or using a blast shield at the time.
    .
  • Insane: According to the police report, Brown routinely took explosive compounds home with him in his pockets.  The report made it sound as if he was testing them at his house.  The police bomb squad was called to his residence to confiscate the vials, and they conducted a controlled detonation of the samples.
    .
  • A labmate pointed out to officials that Brown had been intentionally scaling up the synthesis of other explosives and storing them unsafely in lab.  There were conflicts in the lab among labmates regarding safety and cleanliness.  Translation: Brown was routinely in the habit of working unsafely.  His luck finally ran out.
    .

Another gem in the report:

  • A different student miscalculated when setting up a synthesis and made 30 g of triacetone triperoxide (nasty!) instead of 30 mg.  (W.T.F. — how is this possible?  Well doctor, you see, I was planning to eat 5 M&Ms, but I made a mistake and ate 5000 and didn’t notice until I was done.)

 

I bet anyone who’s worked in a lab has encountered at least one coworker whose inattention to safety has troubled those in his presence.  I feel a little bad for the PI here, because she is ultimately responsible for what goes on in her lab, and it seems as though this student was incredibly irresponsible.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t sound like she was the best at oversight, as Brown had an established pattern of dangerous behavior and didn’t exactly hide it.  When you’re in charge of a lab, it is not enough to establish protocols and dictate your wishes.  You must ensure that your protocols are being executed properly.  If your directions are repeatedly ignored, you’ve got to swallow hard and take care of the nasty business of booting a student from the lab.

As for the other students here, what do you do when the guy next to you in lab is a time bomb?  First, you tell him to straighten up.  When he doesn’t, you tell the boss.  If the boss doesn’t solve the problem (which, unfortunately, is likely), you basically have to decide between rolling the dice and doing your work, or trying to work around the schedule of the unsafe person.  In my old lab, there was one such person with whom I refused to be in the same room when he was doing bench work.  I arrived at this decision shortly after seeing him spectacularly fail at rotovapping diethyl ether.  (That is a story for another day.)   Fortunately, my old lab had plenty of rooms; in a smaller lab, I imagine I would not have been able to distance myself from the idiot as conveniently. 

In the blog post associated with her story, Kemsley interviews the incoming head of environmental health and safety at Texas Tech.  The administrator’s response is predictable and full of platitudes about improving collaboration and the culture of safety at the school.  While I agree that it is imperative for school administrations to establish and maintain a good culture of safety, I’d like to see someone in a suit step up and make it known that she’s going to start kicking some ass when the situation demands it.

It’s all well and good to talk about safety, but individuals who are egregiously negligent and who willfully ignore safety protocols should be kicked to the curb.  I heard that some company (DuPont?) has a policy that if you get caught in lab without eye protection, you get warned the first time, sent home for the day the second time, and fired the third time.  Two warnings seem more than reasonable.  If schools had similarly strict policies, you’d better believe students would take safety more seriously.


30 Responses to “Texas Tech & Dealing with Screwball Labmates”

  1. Chemjobber Says:

    Paul, what was your assessment of the Sheri Sangji case when it happened?

  2. John Spevacek Says:

    “A different student miscalculated when setting up a synthesis and made 30 g of triacetone triperoxide (nasty!) instead of 30 mg. (W.T.F. — how is this possible? Well doctor, you see, I was planning to eat 5 M&Ms, but I made a mistake and ate 5000 and didn’t notice until I was done.) “

    I agree that the miscalculation is horrible, but keep in mind that a similar 1000x miscalculation led to the discovery of polyacetylene and a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for Shirakawa.

  3. Policing potentially dangerous students | The Safety Zone Says:

    […] ChemBark and ChemJobber both have posts up this morning commenting on the Texas Tech incident. I’d like to jump off from something in the ChemBark post: I bet anyone who’s worked in a lab has encountered at least one coworker whose inattention to safety has troubled those in his presence. I feel a little bad for the PI here, because she is ultimately responsible for what goes on in her lab, and it seems as though this student was incredibly irresponsible. Nevertheless, it doesn’t sound like she was the best at oversight, as Brown had an established pattern of dangerous behavior and didn’t exactly hide it. When you’re in charge of a lab, it is not enough to establish protocols and dictate your wishes. You must ensure that your protocols are being executed properly. If your directions are repeatedly ignored, you’ve got to swallow hard and take care of the nasty business of booting a student from the lab. […]

  4. Paul Says:

    @Chemjobber: There are so many different points to appreciate about the Sangji case. First, unlike Brown, it doesn’t seem like she was engaged in a pattern of gross negligence. Her mistake, while much more costly, was more “honest” for lack of a better term.

    From the standpoint of a bench chemist, I would never have attempted to transfer so much pyrophoric reagent by syringe. I am a canula + dropping funnel man.

    From the standpoint of an advisor, if I am ever in charge of a lab, at least one group meeting every two months will be devoted to “professional enrichment.” This will include establishing proper safety practices, keeping good records, improving experimental technique, refereeing papers, scientific writing, public speaking, making slides, and lots of similar stuff. I think a lot of accidents would be prevented if “the basics” were reviewed regularly and drilled into new recruits.

    To the field of synthetic chemistry: please recondsider the value of squeezing out those last few percents of yield unless you are a process chemist and it really matters. She didn’t need to use tBuLi to make her compound; there were safer alternatives.

    From the standpoint of a possible bystander, I want our field to establish “good samaritan” standards to make our lives easier. If the girl next to me spills a pyrophoric reagent on herself, should I feel hesitant about stripping her clothes off and forcing her under a safety shower? I think not, but I would. In today’s litigious society, I could easily lose my job, and that is stupid. Alos, no one ever talks about this scenario in an official capacity, either.

  5. psi*psi Says:

    Uh, if I’m ever burning to death, anyone around me is welcome and encouraged to strip off all my clothing and throw me under a shower. Just putting that out there. (Even though I’m not sure how I could manage to set myself on fire these days…since all I do is on an instrument or in a glovebox.)

  6. Mitch Says:

    @Psi http://static.stickam.com/media/image/converted/player/1797/7477/4/edcbcab7-3e17-11df-ab39-0b9f25fe9e1b.jpg

  7. Nikola Says:

    “I heard that some company (DuPont?) has a policy that if you get caught in lab without eye protection, you get warned the first time, sent home for the day the second time, and fired the third time. Two warnings seem more than reasonable. If schools had similarly strict policies, you’d better believe students would take safety more seriously.”
    My former lab had that very same policy on goggles. In the mean time, organic waste solvents were stored on unventilated benches, and nanoparticles were merrily flying in the air… I do wear medical glasses and wearing an extra pair of “overglasses” gives me a horrible headache so I spent my time in the lab worrying about not being caught without my mandatory eye protection while breathing nasty solvents and powders!
    I think strict rules like this can sometimes be counterproductive. It’is more a matter of the advisor being concerned about safety. There’s nothing to do until an accident happens if he/she doesn’t give a shit. I mentioned the safety issues in group meetings and people thanked me for my input but nothing really changed.
    Lab inspections are run in my current lab by a safety team but we are warned in advance. I would make these inspections with no previous notification and tell the workers what they’re doing wrong instead of punishing them. Then if they’re caught again, you could take some real penalty.

  8. bearing Says:

    Re: safety showers, I think a significant real improvement in safety could be made if the showers were curtained. It may seem silly, but I am aware of two incidents in places I’ve worked — one was an undergraduate chemistry courseroom laboratory, one a chemical plant — where a person refused to go under the shower or to remove clothing soaked by a corrosive chemical, and instead wasted valuable minutes going to a single-sex restroom or locker room to remove clothing. One was a male, one female.

    Yes, it was dumb not to take off their clothes in front of a mixed group of people, but it is also dumb for lab/plant managers not to see this kind of thing coming. It’s human nature to avoid stripping in front of strangers, and it makes it easier for people to think “I don’t want to make such a big deal of this incident” by pulling the shower/stripping.

  9. psi*psi Says:

    Nikola, I know exactly what you mean about the overglasses. My regular glasses are polycarbonate with pretty strong frames and won’t shatter…I really hate wearing the extra goggles and tend to only do so when I know I’m in imminent danger. That said, I’d like to see side shields become more readily available. If the stockroom carried them, I’d use them…

  10. RS Says:

    The problem in unis is that a lot of the academics -the people in positions of authority most closely connected to the research- couldn’t care less about safety, and the administrators tend to only care about litigation, so you tend to get one-size-fits-all rules (instead of focusing on the really dangerous things) and safety training that is more about paperwork than any practical, real-world advice that people can actually use. The whole thing is made worse by chemical companies labelling everything as dangerous (again, for litigation reasons); when everything is labeled as hazardous, people end up ignoring these labels and the MSDS.

    An example of what I mean is that at my former uni God help you if you were caught working alone, after hours (it was fine if there was no one else in the lab but it was during working hours), even if what you were doing was less dangerous than ordinary cooking (it was equally forbidden to work after hours with pyrophorics, and make up aqueous solutions of edible polymers) – but an inept student could, during working hours, leave the nitric acid in the organic solvents cupboard, or leave 10 (I kid you not) bottles of a teratogenic solvent lying on the floor, right in front of the door, when there was a pregnant student int he lab, and that was fine.

  11. Everyday Scientist » dangerous chemists need to be fired Says:

    […] Brown blowing off his fingers after grinding up 10 g of very explosive hydrazine. (The returned ChemBark also blogged this!) Now, I feel sad for Brown: he did not deserve to be injured, even if he was […]

  12. sam Says:

    bearing, i take every opportunity to get naked in lab.

  13. Tom S Says:

    @Nikola & psi*psi

    I don’t know what the situation with opticians in the US but here in the UK it is possible to get prescription safety specs for about 75 pounds, as someone who loathes overglasses (mainly because they rarely stay attached to my face) I think thats a reasonable investment in eye safety. Even better if you can get the uni/company to pay for them as mandatory safety equipment.

  14. David P Says:

    @Tom S

    Prescription safety glasses are definitely available Stateside – I am wearing some myself right now.

    Seems like a very reasonable investment in safety – and if universities pay for it they can show that they are actually doing something to encourage safe practice (as an aside, no company I know of would even think twice about covering that cost).

  15. Hap Says:

    While I think the grad student involved certainly earned a Darwin Award Honorable Mention, I don’t think that the advisor can be considered entirely innocent. It’s hard to strictly enforce the “if you’re stupid, you go bye-bye” rule, but if your students are working with things that are likely to kill and injure others if abused or used improperly, then you sort of have a responsibility to your students (and the student himself, who is supposed to learn what not to do before the costs become so high, and his future employers who will have to deal with your students’ habits, as well). If you aren’t smart enough to preserve your own life, that’s one thing, but if your extreme negligence can take out other people, well, it’s time to go.

    The item that makes me likely to increase the advisor’s share of the blame is the total lack of safety shields. Your group is going to be work with likely explosives of unknown power and sensitivity, and you don’t even have blast shields? The TT group isn’t the first one to be doing this sort of work, and considering that the procedures (at least some of them) were cited in the 2007 C+E News article on the topic, it isn’t like the procedures (at least some weren’t available). Contact with others in the field who do this work on how to manage the hazards would probably have been a good idea (I don’t know if the professors would be afraid of legal liability for such advice, but they might know where to get it if they weren’t willing to advise themselves.). Barring that, playing with explosives seems to mandate more than the usual “let it ride” level of academic safety awareness.

  16. Hap Says:

    The safety glasses vs. goggles thing – safety glasses are good agains explosions but not nearly as good as goggles against splashes. I wore glasses is grad school because goggles tend to fog up and be useless, but there was a recent post on the C+E blog about splash patterns and relative protection of various eyewear – safety glasses did not work well (though better than either nothing or regular glasses). Of course, goggles you don’t wear are worse than glasses you do.

  17. Paul Says:

    @psi*psi: I think many departments cover the cost of prescription glasses with side shields, and if not, your advisor should. These are a legitmate business expense–you won’t want to wear these BCGs outside of lab.

    @bearing: Agree about curtains for safety showers. Harvard installed several of these curtains in the hallway showers in the past year or so.

    @RS: Totally agree about schools seeming to be more concerned with liability than safety.

    @Hap: Agree that the advisor is to blame too. It is incredible that a lab studying explosives didn’t have any blast shields. Since it didn’t, this guy should have been working behind a hood sash—preferably the ones that slide horizontally so you can position the barrier directly in front of you.

  18. Chemjobber Says:

    The post that Hap refers to is here: http://cenblog.org/the-safety-zone/2010/06/eyes-in-the-lab/

  19. eugene Says:

    I actually feel bad lately for having a bad lab-book. Most of my reactions are done in NMR tubes these days and I write them down after the fact. But for some syntheses that are repeats, I do leave that info out and I don’t write the procedure if it’s a repeat. I’m betting CEN would hate my labbook. Still, I did feel better that I’m not a screw-up and I’m very logical when it comes to safety.

    I agree about having that ‘one guy’ in the lab that makes me want to avoid it during their working hours. Now it’s two guys for me. Thankfully, they both go home at a reasonable hour, so I have plenty of time to work in the evenings when no one is bothering me. It’s much, much safer that way. Even if I’m doing BuLi reactions on my own with someone 200 meters down the hall; you can trust me on this. I don’t ever want to be poisoned by that horrible (to remain nameless) shit again. On the plus side, being around dangerous people has made me start wearing goggles 100% of the time in the wet lab. I never take them off now even to look at the computer. The problem is that I need enough sleep and video game playing time, and I’m always a little concerned when the boss sees me come in around lunchtime into the lab.

  20. Texas Tech Explosion « Chemical Space Says:

    […] at Texas Tech is surely the story of the moment and clearly must be blogged on. ChemJobber and ChemBark are already on the case (getting them mentions on In the […]

  21. Holy Best Practices Batman! It’s the “Dirty Dozen” « A Giant Among Molecules Says:

    […] seems like all of my favorite blogs, Chemjobber, ChemBark and Everyday Scientist, are all talking about chemical safety and dangerous labmates as a result of […]

  22. The Sickness is in Me Says:

    I have a PhD from Texas Tech and hearing about dumb students doing dumb things while unsupervised by professors is totally unsurprising. (I did plenty of dumb things too, like stay seven years in Lubbock)

  23. The Sickness is in Me Says:

    (Should clarify PhD is not in Chemistry)

  24. Bob Jones Says:

    The Sickness is in Me Says:

    August 27th, 2010 at 9:01 PM
    (Should clarify PhD is not in Chemistry)
    _______________________

    If it was in chemistry, it might be worth something. Any press is good press.

  25. The Sickness is in Me Says:

    @BobJones: Puts a whole new spin on the “Who’s got two thumbs and a [Chem PhD from TTU]” phrase.

  26. Academic Chemical Safety: a discussion with Chemjobber | STEM_Wonk Says:

    […] listen too. But as you know, Chembark and Everyday Scientist already did a great post here and here on that side of things.) This paragraph in the case study outlines exactly why more […]

  27. Former Chemist Says:

    This is all-too common in academic chemistry laboratories. Professors turn a blind eye to the poor training and safety and environmental violations committed by their graduate students. The professor IS responsible, in the technical sense and the ethical sense.

    Poor training, lack of accountability, and negligence led to Sheri Sangji at UCLA setting herself on fire with t-butyllithium and killing herself. Her professor, Patrick Harran is now mired in a huge legal battle with OSHA. … and rightfully so.

  28. Chemginex Says:

    If you don’t learn to respect these primary high explosives, a bad accident is very likely to happen. Let me tell you about my experiences.

    When I was ~15yrs old, I had first gotten into pyrotechincs and energetics with the organic peroxides. I had been having some problems with a small synthesis of ~1-2g of triacetone triperoxide. I had been getting maybe 1/10 of the yield Iwas meant to get.

    Having been frustrated at earlier synthesis failures and very eager to get something that went BANG I thought that I could scale it up more and get a bigger yield. Furthermore, I was unsure what kind of yield I was going to get if it went well.

    Well, the scale up synthesis was attempted.. all the reactants in and the catalyst dripped in. Finished dripping and suddenly
    The whole solution turned into a white slush.

    And just like that, I was staring at 30g of wet TATP

    Anyway I kept calm instead of freaking out, mixed in water, and washed it down into a storm drain.

    THAT is how 30g of TATP appears out of nowhere (granted, no experience and little chemistry experience at the time.

    I always had safety glasses and a face shield on though, and generally thick leather gloves. But they’d provide no protection
    against 30g of TATP.

    Dont blame the professor here. This kid had no respect for this compound and this was bound to happen. He was probably
    lazy, and followed procedures while being watched.

    Professor cannot be everywhere at once.

    If you cannot respect energetics but keep playing with them, they will maim/kill you. He was a soul marked for death,
    whether at uni or at home.

  29. Chemginex Says:

    oh and grinding primary high explosive in a mortar and pestle

    he obviously had NO experience with how sensitive primary high explosives are to something as simple as the tap of a hammer.

    I may have done some very silly stuff when I was young, but I never did something that stupid.

    I stopped playing with organic peroxides after that, switched over to lead azide salts, and then finally stopped that hobby altogether.

    I am now 3rd year chemical engineering at UC.

    When I learnt about how sensitive primaries are, I always handled them with fear. One second you fingers would be
    there, the next they would be gone, your eardrums ruptured… and a few seconds later you would feel the pain.

  30. Anon Says:

    A former labmate was a total loose cannon. Had a decent, glass shattering explosion that even broke the glass on his fume hood. Then he lied about how it happened. He has even appeared to be high in the lab, but that could have just been his personality. Anyways, now he is a tenure-track at an outstanding school.


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