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June 15, 2005
How Safe Is This Stuff?
Prompted by a comment to the benzene distillation post, I've been searching for some accident rate or life expectancy data for organic chemists. It's not easy to find. I'm pretty sure that the American Chemical Society collects this sort of thing (and since they have a group rate for term life insurance, it would seem that someone has looked into the matter), but the numbers don't seem to be public. Anyone know of a source?
My belief is that organic chemistry isn't a particularly hazardous profession. The risks go down as you get out of graduate school, where there's much less supervision, in facilities that are often not the most up to date, with many more dangerous people running around. We've weeded out most of the really deadly folks here in industry, and I'm sure that there's a steep power-law distribution that has them accounting for way more than their share of trouble.
Almost every serious accident I've ever been around has been someone's fault - that is, as opposed to JOOTT (Just One Of Those Things.) Nope, the bad ones have all been due to someone screwing up, generally in a way that made independent observers groan and shake their heads afterwards. Distilling things that shouldn't be distilled, making things on a scale that they shouldn't be made (with the available equipment), grievously mishandling fiery and corrosive reagents, setting up closed systems and cranking the heat up on them - that's the sort of thing I mean.
And as far as I can tell, the best way to improve your safety record is to get rid of the people that seem capable of doing this stuff. The worst ones aren't particularly trainable, anyway; you're much better off without them. "Against stupidty, the Gods themselves contend in vain", and no safety program is going to stand a chance, either.
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