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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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May 3, 2007

Forewarned is Forearmed

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Posted by Derek

If you work in an organic chemistry lab, odds are excellent that eventually you're going to have to handle some sort of emergency. There are so many energetic materials used, and so many flammable substances around to go up with them, that sooner or later every working chemist has (or is close to) a fire or explosion.

I don't want to sound too alarmist, because most of these are small affairs that go out quickly. Some of them, though, are small affairs that should go out quickly, but get transformed by bad decisions into large, exciting ones. And once in a while you get one that starts off large and just keeps building, and good luck to all concerned. Here's the question, though: how do you behave?

There's no way to know a priori, and there's no way to know about your labmates, either. You can place some bets: a person who's normally level-headed has a better chance of remaining true to type in a sudden emergency (as does a person who's usually jumpy, for that matter), but there are no guarantees. You have to wait until a situation develops to find out. Some folks are going to surprise you, in either a positive or negative way.

The biggest problem many people have is that they freeze up, unable to think of the best course of action. In my experience, doing nothing in a lab crisis is a much likelier problem than doing something immediate, forceful, and wrong. (Immediate action is usually a sign that the person involved has thought about their options in advance). It always pays, when setting up some chemistry that might turn lively, to picture yourself bolting for the nearest fire extinguisher. That'll at least fix its location in your mind, not to mention concentrating your attention a bit on what you're doing. If a fire extinguisher isn't the answer to your potential problem (which it is, in many cases), then by all means imagine doing whatever else you'll need to do if things go wild - heaving in buckets of sand or handfuls of ice, shutting off valves, what have you.

The problem with freezing up (or with its equivalent, running around in circles), is that not only are you not doing anything about the problem at hand, you're probably interfering with the efforts of anyone who is. You'd be surprised at how many times you have to push someone aside to get a clear shot with an extinguisher, for instance. Doing something is the first choice, but getting out of the way for someone else to do something is not to be disparaged.

In some twenty-five years in academic and industrial labs, I've probably been in the vicinity for about six incidents which were serious trouble, either real or potential, and several others that could have turned that way, but didn't. It's been a while since the last one, though, and that's how I like it. But once I get back into the lab, you can be sure that I'll be checking to see where the fire extinguisher is, because you never know.

Comments (18) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. Chrispy on May 3, 2007 11:00 PM writes...

I've had two incidents, both of which were contained by the pain-in-the-butt safety stuff.

One was a pressure vessel with ammoniated methanol and cyanide. It blew and made a mess of the hood, but was contained within the blast shield which is standard practice for pressure vessels.

The other was when I was syringe-filtering a super concentrated HIV stock. The syringe blew out, and a stream of enough HIV to infect all of China dribbled harmlessly down the interior glass of the laminar flow hood, right in front of my forehead-against-the-glass face.

In both of these cases, the accidents were somewhat stupid-driven: the pressure vessel was too full, what the hell was I syringe filtering a stock like that for, anyway? But I think science teaches us humility...

I worked in one lab where a fellow was considered for being rather a wimp because he wore gloves. Can you imagine? Perhaps I am betraying my age...

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2. DLIB on May 4, 2007 12:28 AM writes...

You may or may not realize this, but semiconductor fabs are really chemistry labs ( a smidgeon of physics and material science too ) with some interesting hazards.

One time I was near a bank of LPCVD Furnaces and saw a Flash of light out of the corner of my eye in the service chase behind the furnace bank. That happens to be where they keep all the nice phosphines and arsines and diborane and dichlorosilane. In the lab, there's a mechanism to to send an alarm that is both vocal as well as overriding computer screens with the message EVACUATE. Well a buunch of people stood around as they were astonished I was going to trip the alarm--which I did. The whole plenum system caught fire and smoked was billowing from the fab.

I've seen other incidents with pirhana ( mixture of 30%H2O2 and concetrated sulfuric @120deg C )...

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3. russ on May 4, 2007 11:10 AM writes...

I worked for many years in big pharma chem labs. Towards the end of that life, I was in an instument intensive group where we worried about the effect of dry powder extinguishers. We wanted the facilities people to supply us with CO2 extinguishers; they resisted. A guy from corporate got involved, and (inadvertently, I'm sure) let the cat out of the bag: they had sprinklers to prevent the building from going up, and extinguishers to comply with the law.

In that institution, it was obvious that the effect of a fire on your work was of no consequence; better to get everyone out and let the sprinklers take care of it.

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4. Flash-column Jockey on May 4, 2007 11:59 AM writes...

As I write this post, I am staring across the lab at a post-doc using the hi-vac line... with no safety glasses....holding a RBF at 2 torr.....6 inches from their face.... and applying heat with a heat gun. I'm taking a pro-active approach by securing the campus ememergency numbers now. That way, when the sound of imploding glass followed by the "oh wow I have a lot of glass shrapnel in my eyes"-caliber screams pierce the air, I'll be ready.

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5. Brian at on May 4, 2007 12:39 PM writes...

The first time I plated bacteria, the person showing me how to do it lit the ethanol bath on fire (on purpose). It's really no big deal, throw a lid on it and it goes out almost instantly, but it taught me not to panic the first time I did it. I now do this anytime I'm teaching someone how to plate bacteria.

OTOH, a month ago someone in my lab carried a lit EtOH bath to the sink (not sure what she thought she was going to do with it there...put it out with water?!). The glass got too hot for her to handle, and she threw it crashing into the sink, where it burned out. If she hadn't made it that far, it could have been dropped on a wall which might have gone up in flames.

I think the Boy Scouts have it right: Be Prepared.

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6. Mark M on May 4, 2007 1:22 PM writes...


Seriously, do the humane thing and bring it up with the individual and PI--the idiot needs to wear glasses.

-Mark M

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7. Bob on May 4, 2007 2:28 PM writes...

Either that or hose them in the face with some DI, then cackle maniacally and chant "Now you're blind! Now you're blind!" I actually had to do this to a summer student who just didn't get it, and I didn't want to be the one to deal with the aftermath of a real accident.

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8. Hap on May 4, 2007 3:54 PM writes...

One of the people in the lab across the hall was working with sodium-potassium alloy, and he was smart enough to have the ***only*** alkali metal fire extinguisher nearby, so that when the alloy found a flaw in his glassware, he could at least minimize the damage. Even with that, our lab was closed for the night - without having prepared for it, the incident would probably have been much worse.

In the Cobra Event, the author paraphrases Thucydides by saying "Hope is a valuable commodity. It is better to be prepared."

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9. milkshake on May 4, 2007 7:52 PM writes...

There is reason why not too many people use K-Na liquid alloy nowadays. It is called natural selection.

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10. Unistrut on May 4, 2007 8:37 PM writes...

Don't rely too much on the Boy Scouts... When I was in scouts we were cooking and had one of our inevitable grease fires. We weren't very good cooks. Now, we'd all been through this before, we'd seen it happen to others. You put the lid on, it goes out, you pour off some grease and keep going. While we're reaching for the lid one of the adults came over, saw the fire, grabbed the pan from us and flung it down a hillside. The only thing that stopped this from becoming a catastrophic brush fire was that it had been raining the entire time we were there (it was a fun trip all round...)

I guess the lessons to be learned from this are to make sure those around you know how and HOW NOT to respond to an emergency you might have and if you see an 'emergency' and none of the people involved seem to be panicking ... stand back. We might just know what we're doing.

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11. ratherdashing on May 4, 2007 10:22 PM writes...

The most prominent chem accident happened in a lab on the third floor (which happened to be that of a recent Nobel prize winner).

On the day of a major symposium at the institute there was (what was later determined to be) a chain of events in the chemical storage room that lead to a very serious fire that basically destroyed the lab. Luckily everyone was attending the symposium lectures outdoors, and no one was hurt.

I really admired the firefighters who were brave enough to go in and deal with putting out a blaze that is burning god knows what.

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12. KLD on May 5, 2007 9:11 AM writes...

Now that I work in industry, it's also amazing to me the lengths that people will go to NOT use a fire extinguisher during a fire just because they don't want to fill out all the incident paperwork after the fact. In grad school, it was never an issue - quick burst with the extinguisher, fire goes out, back to work. Different world.

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13. Derek Lowe on May 5, 2007 12:15 PM writes...

KLD, I'm sorry to say that you're absolutely right. A blizzard of paperwork is triggered at most companies by any safety incident, and it really skews how people respond. It doesn't help that sometimes assignment to the safety committee is used as a sort of punishment detail. All that's worth another post by itself.

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14. MattM on May 5, 2007 10:07 PM writes...

Nitric acid and acetone, Bad. Nitric acid and acetone in a sealed 4 liter bottle, Deadly. Diazomethane don't keep. Pd(OH)2 will catch on fire. Hot glass looks the same as cold glass.

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15. KLD on May 5, 2007 10:10 PM writes...

Derek: I'd love to see a post discussing your thoughts and experiences on safety enforcement in industry.

As you said (#13), safety-related beurocracy definitely clouds people's judgement in moments of crisis. It's not really surprising to me that people try to avoid using an extinguisher during a fire when you start considering the consequence of that action: filling out a stack of paperwork, meeting with safety officials, a meeting with one's manager, a department-wide email, and then (if you're real lucky) a public finger-pointing session at a department meeting? Sadly, all of these safety enforcing measures have become a real deterrent to just doing the right thing!

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16. dearieme on May 6, 2007 7:53 AM writes...

I've once seen a trail of blood in a corridor: CS2 went "pop". We once had a bad lab fire and the lab wasn't even in use. A small fire - caused we think by faulty electrics - spread to the pile of paint tins that the decorators had piled up. And then it reached the solvents.

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17. Nightshifter on May 6, 2007 8:26 PM writes...

I will go with DLIB thats saying semiconductors are really way ahead soemtimes.

I was doing quality control at a primary silicium manufacturer in my work session of the alternating work-study program in undergrads.

One night(yes a night shift) i had to dissolve this to be able to test some refractory elements(Titanium to name one). But for this you have to fluorate it up to TiF6 2- and guess what is the fluorination agent. im sure everyone of you guess right : HF. so at 2 AM i got my only mistake yet, i drop one beaker. Teflon beaker. so it dont mess in the hood, just knock on the top, thilt toward and me and all the content went up to the shoulder/face.

Never a good idea to lose concentration for a fraction of time with those especially when its that deadly.

BTW i dont have any after-effect. lucky me. Had the good reflex to dash to the shower and on the way i didnt forgot the lab coat.

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18. kiwi on May 6, 2007 10:59 PM writes...

#12,15: i am reminded of an article in the satarical Journal of Unpublished Chemistry (google - good humour):

How to Avoid Accidents in the Laboratory, Part 1: Fire Safety.

According to an old adage, "It's only an accident if someone finds out." Useful techniques for extinguishing fires in the laboratory without recourse to firefighting equipment are reported herein. Employment of these methods obviates the requirement to report such incidents and enables the research worker to avoid uncomfortable visits from the Safety Officer.

I think someone should write that paper up for Tet Lett.

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