Archive for the ‘Lab Safety’ Category

Mission Support

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

I took this photo of the chemistry building at SLU yesterday at 8:15 am. Note that the curb marked “fire lane” and “no parking” is completely full of parked cars.

I tweeted the pic and threw some shade on our Office of Parking and Card Services, because last year, they insisted it would be impossible to allow people in our department to use the curb for short-term loading because of the fire hazard presented by parked cars. True to their word, they have ticketed students and staff in our department who have attempted to run quickly into the building to attend to experiments. Given that none of the cars this morning had parking citations, I can only conclude that vehicles belonging to facilities crews and contractors are special and do not pose the same fire hazard as our cars. Or, perhaps, this is administrative hypocrisy at its finest worst.

At Caltech, parking is treated as a resource meant to support its students and staff. Despite having a campus in densely-populated Los Angeles County, the institute didn’t even charge for parking until around a decade ago, when space started to become limited. My favorite aspect of parking at Caltech was that students and staff could park on yellow-curbed loading zones after 5 p.m. You could drive right up to the door of the lab building! It was wonderfully convenient, and a boon to safety since the walk to your car at night was short.

Given the many benefits of the Caltech system, I thought our department should raise the issue of instituting similar parking policy at SLU. I drafted this letter and sent it up the chain. Unfortunately, little came of it. Our department was granted a few passes that allowed holders to park in a slightly-less-distant parking lot (perhaps, 100 yards away instead of 200) if they need to run inside the building.

The different approaches to parking policy mark a stark contrast in culture between Caltech and SLU. At Caltech, resources are milked to improve the efficiency of students and staff. At SLU, students and staff are milked of financial resources. Perhaps no parking rule illustrates this difference more than how cars are treated at night. Whereas all parking at Caltech is free at night—whether you have a day pass or not—parking at SLU can cost $10, regardless of whether you have a daytime permit. If I attempt to park at the garage closest to the chemistry department on the night of a sports game, SLU will charge me $10. My parking permit is no good. What a wonderful way to treat your researchers!

This picture, from Caltech’s Instagram stream yesterday, illustrates another nice thing that Caltech does:


Must be lunchtime. Caltech ❤️s Ernie’s. #caltech #campus #caltechalumni #summergram #nomnom A photo posted by Caltech (@caltechedu) on


Ernie is a guy who runs a food truck at Caltech. He is an institution within the institution—a legend—serving great food at cheap prices. Caltech could easily boot him off campus and drive students and departments to use campus eateries. But instead, Caltech provides places for Ernie to park his truck, giving students an inexpensive, convenient option to eat. During my official intake meeting with HR at Caltech, the HR representative even took out a photocopied map and highlighted the spots on Ernie’s route. It was awesome.

I would strongly encourage any organization to emulate this behavior and think how it could allocate under-used resources to improve the efficiency and/or morale of its community. Why not let researchers park in loading zones at night? Why not let students use the department’s nice conference room after hours? Or the big-screen of the lecture hall to watch movies?

Why not foster a friendlier, welcoming environment, where your university’s resources are used to support students and staff rather than wring every last penny out of them?

Chemistry Error on Seinfeld

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Something didn’t quite look right when I saw this scene from ‘Seinfeld’ in real time:

Closer inspection of the fire diamond reveals the flammability rating of the paint thinner to be 8:


That’s pretty impressive, considering the maximum score is 4 on the NFPA 704 standard. If acetylene is a 4, I wouldn’t want to be driving around town with an 8 in my trunk.

For those curious, the episode is ‘The Pothole’ from Season 8. The IMDB page for the episode already lists the scene as a goof.

Longtime readers will remember that this is not the only time Jerry Seinfeld has used chemistry for laughs.

La Cucaracha

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

La cucaracha, la cucaracha,
Ya no puede caminar…


I stumbled upon this lovely scene in the men’s room by my lab last night.

At some point in every single laboratory I’ve ever worked, I’ve encountered a dead cockroach lying flat on its back. Without exception, my first thought is always:

What horribly toxic substance has this poor creature encountered to cause her
to die alone and out in the open like this?

After a few seconds of thoughtful reflection, I usually convince myself the cockroach died of natural causes and we are all safe. In other news, I wish I could say that I’ve never seen a labmate do this:

Fortunately, I haven’t had the excitement of seeing a live one racing around the floor in a long time.

The Most Important Lesson from Sheri Sangji’s Death

Thursday, 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.

UCLA Professor Patrick Harran Strikes Deal with Prosecutors

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

BulldoodyPatrick Harran, the UCLA professor who faced four felony counts in connection with the death of Sheri Sangji in a laboratory fire, has struck a deal with prosecutors that allows him to avoid charges in exchange for a $10,000 fine, 800 hours of community service, and running a lab free of safety violations. So long as Harran completes his end of the terms of the agreement, he will avoid trial and have an untarnished criminal record.

What a relief!

As an assistant professor in charge of a research lab, I could not be happier with this outcome. I have a lot of stuff to worry about, and ensuring the safety of my students cannot be allowed to get in the way of important things like finding consulting gigs, collecting awards, traveling to international conferences, and stealing ideas for grants. All of those OSHA rules are meant for industry, not academia. The bar for what passes as safe in academic labs is clear, and people who want to work under moderately safe conditions know better than to go to graduate school. The government simply can’t expect me to be responsible for what happens in my lab, which is well over 50 feet from my office and not even the same direction as the restroom. I’m happy to buy enough safety goggles and almost enough lab coats to outfit my students, but the rest is up to them. If Aldrich has written a technical note on their hazardous experiment, my students know not to bother me.

The most important aspect of the Harran deal is how it extends the long, proud tradition of excusing PIs of any professional responsibility for their work. Society recognizes that professors are only supposed to have good things happen to them. We get the lion’s share of credit for papers, not the students or postdocs. We get the big salaries, not the students or postdocs. We get the awards, not the students or postdocs. On the flip side, professors must be protected from negative consequences at all costs. If an accident happens in one of our labs, that’s the students’ fault. If multiple papers from one of our labs contain fabricated data, that’s the students’ fault as well. Clearly, professors are not responsible for supervising their groups for integrity or safety. We know this because Dalibor Sames and Patrick Harran are still in charge of their labs. I applaud Columbia and UCLA for recognizing that you can’t discriminate against professors for trivial things like irresponsibility and incompetence. Anyway, it’s the competent professors you need to watch—lightning never strikes twice, right?

Of course, I realize that there should be some consequences when something truly horrible happens. In these situations, professors must arrange for perfunctory punishments that allow all of the parties charged with oversight to save face. That’s what we saw here: UCLA threw some money at a scholarship in the victim’s name and at establishing a safety program it should have had in the first place. Personally, Harran was forced to donate money to the hospital where his student died. Incidentally, I think $10,000 was way too much; the man only earns $301,000 a year. How is he going to make ends meet with just $291,000? At least Harran’s lawyers were clever in how they disguised the 800 hours of community service as a major inconvenience instead of court-mandated preparation for the Broader Impacts section of Harran’s next NSF proposal. Killing two birds with one stone is exactly why good lawyers get paid the big bucks.

In all seriousness, I think the deal agreed to by prosecutors is a grave injustice, but one that comes as no surprise in today’s legal system. Without any changes to the material facts of the case, how does the DA go from charging someone with four felony counts to striking a deal that allows Harran to have a spotless record with a payment, community service, and actually doing his job of running a lab free of safety violations? Note that this was not a plea bargain; Harran pleaded guilty to nothing—not a misdemeanor, or even an infraction.

The game plan of Harran’s legal defense was quite effective: delay, delay, and delay. They gummed up the works with continuance after continuance and motion after motion. In the end, it appeared the prosecutors were willing to do anything just to clear the case. I mean, was this deal what the prosecutors were holding out for all of these years? What makes it all the more worse is that the original deal called for 400 rather than 800 hours of community service. The judge had to step in and double it.

My heart goes out to Sheri’s family for their loss. While I think our legal system has denied them justice, my hope is that the field of chemistry does not forget what happened to her. I hope UCLA’s reported new-and-improved safety culture persists, and I hope the rest of the world of academic chemistry also strives to do a much better job regarding safety than it has in the past. At the very least, I can guarantee you that Sheri’s death has had an indelible, positive effect my approach to safety and how I manage my lab and students.


For more coverage: C&EN’s Jyllian Kemsley and Michael Torrice have done a fantastic service for the community in covering the case, and Chemjobber has been curating links to coverage on his site.