Archive for the ‘Accidents’ Category

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,
GET IN THE SAFETY SHOWER

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.

Gas Cylinders on Fire

Monday, July 15th, 2013

Everyone has heard stories of ruptured gas cylinders rocketing across the floor (and through walls), but seldom does one get to witness such an accident. Recently, a truck transporting a load of cylinders crashed on a Russian freeway and created this scene:

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There were several other videos taken from a variety of angles (1 2 3). It’s interesting to watch one cylinder explode after another and to see the kind of speed a ruptured container can build. Obviously, these ubiquitous and relatively inconspicuous pieces of lab equipment present serious risks.

Teacher Sets Fire to Himself

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

Courtesy of LiveLeak, here’s another great chemistry demo. And by great, I mean stupid…

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 I’m really not sure what the point of the demo was.

About.com Just About Makes Me Vomit

Friday, June 21st, 2013

Whenever you search for any standard do-it-at-home chemistry demo, most of the time you will come across an entry on About.com. About.com is a site that tries to gobble up pageviews so it can attract advertisers, and one method they use for doing this is to pay “guides” to write about popular topics within a particular subject area.

The guide for chemistry is Anne Marie Helmenstine, who earned a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from the University of Tennessee. Probably sensing an opportunity to gobble up pageviews, Dr. Helmenstine jumped on the liquid nitrogen pool party story. If all she wanted to do was attract hits, that was an excellent plan. Yesterday alone, ChemBark got 21k pageviews, which is about 7-10 times what the site gets on a typical day with a fresh post. But, if your job is to educate and inform, I would not recommend writing this:

Nitrogen is principal gas in air, so it it’s quite safe on its own, but the liquid nitrogen was believed to have reacted with treatments in the pool, releasing toxic gas. How do you avoid hospitalizing your party, if you want liquid nitrogen fog? Simply add the nitrogen to ordinary water, not chemical-treated water. You’ll get fog without additional compounds. The principal risk from liquid nitrogen fog is from asphyxiation. Adding more nitrogen to the air decreases the relative amount of oxygen. This isn’t an issue so much in an outdoor pool, but should be a consideration if you have an enclosed pool. It’s safer to use a fog machine or make real water-based fog in that situation.

That is Dr. Helmenstine’s expert advice, and it is atrocious. First, there is very little chance the nitrogen reacted with the hypochlorite in the pool. Second, adding the liquid nitrogen to non-chlorinated water would have posed the same danger to life as adding it to chlorinated water. Finally, to write that this “isn’t an issue so much in an outdoor pool” is not only wrong, it is a public health hazard. The pool party disaster took place at an outdoor pool.

Ugh!

Awful Idea: Liquid Nitrogen at a Pool Party

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

There is video circulating tonight of a summer party in Mexico where organizers poured liquid nitrogen into the swimming pool. They weren’t messing around, either—you can see a number of ~10 L dewars being upended into the water.

 

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Of course, this is a very, very bad idea. Under these conditions, the nitrogen (b.p. = −196 °C) quickly boils and displaces all of the oxygen present, causing people in the area to asphyxiate. Remember, it only takes 28 g of liquid nitrogen to displace 22.4 L of air at standard temperature and pressure. The fact that you are asphyxiating is masked by your ability to exhale carbon dioxide normally, so the burning sensation you experience when holding your breath or drowning is absent. Furthermore, the thick fog produced upon mixing the liquid nitrogen and water conceals any distress.

It looks like multiple people were hurt at the party and needed to be rescued.

News reports, updated 21 June 2013: Daily Mail (corrected most of the wrong chemistry, but a caption referencing a reaction with chlorine remains), Latin Rapper Blog (corrected to get the chemistry right; gives ChemBark a shout out, see comments), International Science Times (gets it right, credits ChemBark), Excelsior (gets the chemistry wrong), Fox News (gets the chemistry wrong), MSN Now (gets the chemistry wrong), Huffington Post UK (gets chemistry mostly right, credits ChemBark, but still needs to correct photo captions), NY Daily News (gets the chemistry wrong), The Sun (gets the chemistry wrong), The Telegraph (gets the chemistry wrong in the headline), Popular Science (gets the chemistry right, includes interview and link to ChemBark), Slate (corrected the story to get the chemistry right).

Deborah Blum covered the misreports by the media of the chemistry at play on the Knight Science Journalism (KSJ) site. The post links to ChemBark.

Updated note to media: Many outlets have reported that liquid nitrogen will react with chemicals in swimming pools to generate a poisonous gas. This is almost certainly incorrect. Molecular nitrogen is relatively inert and should not react with anything present in the pool, like “chlorine” (mostly, NaOCl) or water. The danger of adding liquid nitrogen to the pool stems simply from the nitrogen’s boiling and pushing away all of the oxygen around, leaving none for the swimmers to breathe. The cloud that is present has nothing to do with poison gas. Rather, it is the same thing as fog. The liquid nitrogen is cold and cools the air close to the pool to the point that water vapor in the air condenses into very tiny droplets that stay suspended. The cloud is fog, generated from the same effect responsible for your being able to “see your breath” when you exhale on a cold day. The visible cloud is not nitrogen and it is not smoke; it is droplets of water suspended in an atmosphere of air that is heavily enriched in nitrogen.