The Most Important Lesson from Sheri Sangji’s Death

June 26th, 2014

Chemical Ed with GogglesThis post on The Safety Zone indicates that the community is already forgetting many of the details and lessons of Sheri Sangji’s tragic death. That is a shame, but not a surprise considering the high turnover in academic labs. If I had to pick the most important thing to remember from the tragedy, it is:

When you are covered in hazardous material or flames,

It does not matter if the material is pyrophoric. Just get in. Take off your clothes. Don’t rub your skin; simply let the material rinse away. Do not worry about flooding the lab—your department is going to have way bigger problems if you are seriously injured than if you flood the building. Just look at what happened to UCLA.

If you see a labmate covered in flames or hazardous material, physically help him (i.e., drag him) to a safety shower. Chances are he is panicking and not thinking clearly. Don’t think that you can extinguish the flames with a blanket or lab coat. Don’t waste time worrying about what the substance is. Just get the victim in the damn shower and pull the chain, then call for an ambulance. Help him remove his clothes. Keep him in the shower for 15 minutes. Be a good friend and find some spare clothes or a blanket so he can shield his bits and pieces from public view.

For all the time we spend talking about whether a lab coat would have saved Sangji’s life, I think using the safety shower would have made a much bigger difference.

28 Responses to “The Most Important Lesson from Sheri Sangji’s Death”

  1. respectfully disagree Says:

    From an incident that happened at my university in the last ten years, I must disagree with your advice to always head to the safety shower. Someone had a bomb with a potassium mirror filled with hexane break on them (wearing a labcoat). Covered with a mixture of hexane and shards of glass coated with potassium, they ran to the safety shower and pulled the handle. The end result was extensive skin grafts as a result of the potassium igniting the hexane. Had they hesitated a second, thought about what they had on them and taken their labcoat off beforehand the outcome could have been much less bad.

    Of course the guidance is generally excellent, but with some caveats.

  2. Paul Bracher Says:

    Can you send a link to a news story or description of the incident?

  3. Chemjobber Says:

    Sometimes I wonder if working chemists should be required to get under the shower once a year, just to avoid the whole “should I have to embarrass myself/screw up the lab with the mopping/lose a day of work” questions to prove to oneself that it’s not a big deal and it’s recoverable.

    What can chemists do to avoid mental blocks about using the shower?

  4. John Spevacek Says:


    Not a bad idea. I used to work for a company that had fire extinguisher training, which included the usual snoozer lecture (Type A is for paper…) and then actually putting out a gasoline fire. A hellacious experience (emphasis on the hell). Until you feel the heat of the flames (we were outdoors and downwind of course), you have no idea what you are facing. You realize then and there you either grab 1 extinguisher and go for it, or you get out. You DO NOT grab a 2nd extinguisher.

  5. prunesmith Says:

    As both a woman and someone prone to klutziness, I am simply outraged that you seem to think that being covered in flames is a hazard exclusive to those of the male persuasion.

  6. high horse Says:

    get off your high horse, prunesmith. ‘him’ has a long tradition of being used regardless of the sex of the person involved. nobody is going to take the time to write out ‘he/she’ every time.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    I guess if you have a safety shower in your lab you are lucky.

  8. Chemjobber Says:

    sarcasm detector?

  9. Scared Says:

    My last university had the safety showers removed due to concerns about Legionnaires disease in the stagnant water. They justified this by stating the ‘lack of use’ demonstrated they were not required!

  10. qvxb Says:

    It’s a good idea to have tempered water coming out of safety showers to avoid hypotermia, particularly in the winter.

  11. Paul Bracher Says:

    @prunesmith: Your point is valid, and please believe me when I say that I devote a great deal of thought to my use of pronouns. In general, I try to use gender-neutral plural pronouns, where I can. In this case, it wouldn’t really make sense to talk about a group of accident victims. In some cases, I use “his/her” or “him/her” (for example, here). In this post, you’d destroy the cadence of the penultimate paragraph with so many “him/her”s. Finally, when I elect to use singular pronouns (that require a choice of gender, in English), I’ll generally alternate. Sometimes I’ll go male (as above), sometimes female (like I did here). In the case above, I actually specifically chose to make the subject male because I am male and the subject was being portrayed in a negative light (i.e., as an accident victim) and because we were talking about removing the victim’s clothing. That is to say, my selection of male vs. female pronouns is not unbiased—it is biased against men, because I am a man and I want to avoid the appearance of being insensitive to these issues.

    Finally, this very same criticism has been leveled against me before in a comments thread, despite the fact that I alternated the use of male and female pronouns in that very post! In conclusion, I am very aware of these issues and try my very best to handle them appropriately in my writing. The voices in my head have a fierce debate over the questions “is this wording sexist?” and “does this wording sound weird?”. Unfortunately, my diction will never please everyone.

  12. Jyllian Says:

    @Scared–I would very much like to know which school that was.

  13. NQ Says:

    High Horse (& Paul) – the word is ‘they’. Claims that the pronoun is ungrammatical for a singular individual are no longer correct in modern English. He/she also implies that everybody is either fully male or fully female – not true for everyone. ‘They’ fits in all people equally. :)

  14. Polymer Phil Says:

    I understand the concerns about chemicals getting into the sewers, but if they had a drain that went to a holding tank or something, I think people would be much more apt to use the shower. The lack of floor drains in newer labs is having serious unintended consequences.

  15. oldnuke Says:

    You are responsible for your own safety. Read The Fine Manual!

    With MSDS and all manner of safety resources available online, ignorance is no excuse.

    Unfortunately, most people seem to want to blame someone else for their own carelessness. If you don’t know, ask.

  16. grad student Says:

    Hi Paul! Thanks for the update. I’m currently in the UC system that’s still implementing the changes associated with the settlement, and yes, they’re making a big deal of the training but it hasn’t changed the culture as much as I would like. My favorite snapshot of this mentality is this: I taught an organic lab last semester and they had just instituted optional lab coats for students. Nobody, however, knew about it. There were unused lab coats sitting at the back of each lab because even the professors didn’t know they were for student use! I personally encouraged a no-gloves-on-phone policy, although we didn’t require gloves in the first place. Everyone was under the impression that nothing they’d let undergrads use could be dangerous.

    Re: prunesmith, also a woman here. Do you read a lot of Paul’s stuff? I find him to be pretty careful, and if he says he was choosing to use a male example because he was getting in trouble, I appreciate and respect the forethought. You’re welcome to be outraged but I think it’d be more constructive if you described what you’d like to see — all women examples? Some of both, gender neutral, the him/her pairings? I personally prefer Paul’s alternating method or a use of gender neutral pronouns (they) because there are people outside the binary, too! It’s also been my experience that most sexism these days is subconscious and that putting someone on the defensive is exactly the wrong way to go about effecting change. Treating people you disagree with with greater respect (read: than you think they deserve) tends to encourage more productive communication in my experience.

    Re: oldnuke, ignorance is no excuse if you’re provided the resources to educate yourself, but more often it’s a case of a culture that trivializes safety. Us on the bottom rung can’t step too far out of line without consequences, and if wearing a lab coat (or asking for a lab coat, or changing gloves after spilling something on them, or abandoning an experiment to run to the eye wash) labels us high-maintenance, we might choose not to do it for job security reasons. That’s not a fun place to be.

  17. oldnuke Says:

    @grad student — Sounds like UC needs to hit duPont and Dow up for some safety help. Send a couple of grizzled safety types into the schools to “bring the tablets down from the mount”. I know duPont Safety is sold as a service, maybe they will donate a little help to UC.

    I guess its all in how and where you are brought up. Anyone who can read an MSDS has got to be concerned for their own safety. I always though a semester of toxicology should follow Organic in the ACS curriculum.


  18. z Says:

    I was taught that when you are covered in flames you do *not* run to the safety shower, but instead you stop drop and roll preferably with a fire blanket. Running was said to potentially make things worse. Is this no longer the recommended course of action?

    Maybe it depends where the safety showers are. In most places I’ve worked they’ve been in the hallway so some running would be required to get there.

  19. Chemjobber Says:

    @oldnuke: Worth noting that Dow has teamed up with the University of Minnesota to help with lab safety. It’ll be interesting to see how that works out, especially with the latest incident.

  20. PSU chem Says:

    Dow has also teamed up with Penn State and although people grumble about it and we still aren’t as safe as we could be, I think it has made a real difference in the safety culture here (mostly in terms of proper PPE and knowledge of what to do in the case of an emergency).

  21. oldnuke Says:

    @PSU Unfortunately, you’ll have to get faculty attention by hitting them in their wallets, I’m afraid.

    My employer did exactly that (holding management accountable to their staff’s safety) and it made a world of difference.

  22. RL Says:

    Just a small contribution to the pronoun issue: The Oxford English Dictionary says that using ‘they’ and ‘their’ in place of ‘he or she’ and ‘his/hers’ is fine. This also follows the way most people speak when referring to a person who could be either male or female, or whose gender is unknown:

  23. Anonymous Says:

    Chemjobber comment about having chemists practice using the shower once a year struck a nerve with me. I used to be a firefighter before I got my Ph.D. Later I did skydiving, technical diving, some fairly technical climbing, and home probably a few other things that require, absolutely require, periodic and sometimes unscheduled emergency procedure drills. Working in an academic chemistry lab must be nearly the only risk activity I can think about where basic emergency procedures are never drilled. In technical diving we talk about muscle memory. In an emergency your body does what it has practiced doing. If all you know is to stand around and hope no one notices you or labmate is on fire, that’s pretty much what will happen when the real thing happens. I can’t imagine I’ve been blind to that. Academic chemistry’s attitude about safety can only be considered arrogant. No outdoor risk sport or emergency response group would fail to conduct emergency drills on a regular basis. In technical diving if you have any doubt about someone on the team, you throw your regulator out of your mouth, and give him an out of gas signal. If he doesn’t respond immediately and correctly there is a big problem (for him, you have your backup).

  24. oldnuke Says:

    My lab partner in Organic spilled sulfuric acid on her jeans one afternoon. She was reluctant to get in the shower and drop trou. I always wore a lab coat (duPont training), so I shielded her from the remainder of the class while she showered (ever the gallant chemist :-).

    She didn’t suffer any serious injury, but it would have been a different story if she hadn’t showered, modesty be damned. Of course, the cotton jeans were totaled. She wore my lab coat back to her dorm to change.

    She probably got some strange looks, especially since my coat was monogrammed John …

  25. grad student Says:

    oldnuke, I like your idea. I am fire-extinguisher trained and would not hesitate to use one in case of fire, but I’ve never even seen a safety shower activated. PPE has always been available where I’ve worked but a lot of people choose not to use it correctly/at all and inadvertently contaminate non-lab spaces as a result (I’m talking gloves on door handles and computer keyboards or lack of gloves all day long). I’d like to see these “grizzled safety types” come and drill the point home!

  26. prunesmith Says:

    @everyone: I was being facetious. not actually outraged. I know Paul well! sorry my tone didn’t come through.

  27. Jyllian Says:

    @z Says: Yes, stop, drop, and roll if there isn’t a shower nearby:

    And on showers: UC Irvine now does some shower practice with undergrad inorganic and incoming grad students. Not everyone does it, but it’s a start.

  28. Po Says:

    @OldNuke: Safety is everyone’s responsibility. If the victim in this case had been family, would you be so quick to dismiss this incident as simply a case of carelessness and absolve management of responsibility?

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