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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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« Alas, Dendreon | Main | Into The Trackless Wilderness »

May 14, 2007

Safer Every Day!

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Posted by Derek

Perverse incentives can work in any direction you choose. I was talking here the other week about lab safety, and how it's a good thing to know where the fire extinguishers are. But what if you're working in a place where discharging one of those extinguishers sets off an avalanche of paperwork and committee meetings? Do you use the thing, or does the vision of all that wasted time give you pause, while the flames leap around your glassware?

If it's a seriously nasty fire, you're probably going to pull the pin and worry about the consequences later (and for a fire like that, it's good to remember that going for that second extinguisher is usually a bad idea, compared to, say, diving for the stairs). But what if it's just medium bad, and if you're not sure if it's going to get worse? Other things being equal, you should probably do the most effective thing you can to put it out. But other things aren't always equal in industry.

I've worked where the safety culture was limited to occasional warnings not to blow yourself up, and I've worked under intrusive, no-sparrow-shall-fall regimes. Neither of those, as far as I could see, kept me safer than the other. The problem is, if you're going to aggressively document every possible incident and near miss, to be entered into the massive database and discussed in detail at the mandatory regular safety meetings (attendance taken and computed into the year-end bonus formula). . .well, people are going to sit on most of the ones that they think that they can get away with. The harder you work to log every lapse, the more of them you'll miss.

Once people have reached a certain level of competence and experience, lab safety is largely a matter of thinking about what you're doing, realizing what you know and what you don't know, and planning ahead. These are all highly desirable qualities, both in and out of the lab, and they cannot be expressed by decree. No safety committee is going to make people smarter, and no multi-page web form will make them more alert. In this world, actually, the opposite is much more likely. . .

Comments (15) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. Bunsen Honeydew on May 14, 2007 10:36 AM writes...

Amen, brother! Amen!

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2. christianhauck on May 14, 2007 11:49 AM writes...

give people a form to fill and they stop thinking.

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3. DrSnowboard on May 14, 2007 12:15 PM writes...

Aaah, but what about the iceberg if you don't light up the tip of the iceberg, you just try and cut it off (yes, I know that won't work)?
Great safety innovations I have known:
Stipulation to use blunt-ended needles for syringing reagents to avoid needle stick injuries..
Putting sodium cyanoborohydride under the same protocol as all other cyanides.
written, signed off protocol needed for the use of aniline but not substituted anilines..

Or am I just a thrill seeker?

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4. SynChem on May 14, 2007 1:32 PM writes...

"signed off protocol needed for the use of aniline but not substituted anilines.."

This is the first time I heard aniline are bad. How so?

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5. Demosthenes By Day on May 14, 2007 1:57 PM writes...

My favorite safety officer story was when the fresh faced new safety officer met the med chem department for the first time. Her goal was to have every reaction run in water by the end of the year.
After the laughter died down she couldn't understand why she wasn't taken seriously by the chemists.
On the other hand her replacement, who had a BS in chemistry, was the best safety officer I've ever worked with and totally understood you don't make things safer by asking for ridiculous conditions or burying your scientists with paper.

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6. CET on May 14, 2007 2:27 PM writes...

Wait. You don't need a BS in chem to be the safety officer at a chemistry oriented research facility?

What sort of credentials do you need? Apart from a monocle and a german accent, of course.

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7. Totally palytoxined out on May 14, 2007 3:16 PM writes...


The ultimate metabolic product of arylamines are arylamine-derived nitrenium ions, which can form adducts with DNA, and are therefore mutagenic and carcinogenic.

Hence is why if anyone thinks of developing therapeutics with arylamine functionality, people will shudder and moan.

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8. Handles on May 14, 2007 4:43 PM writes...

I worked under a safety officer whose favourite tactic to instill fear and intimidation was to walk around the labs with a digital camera taking pictures of things he didnt like. Thing was, he never said a word as he did this. Not one word. Later you might recognise your lab in a safety email or poster.

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9. kmd on May 14, 2007 7:18 PM writes...

Thanks for the post Derek.

The advice I would give to any safety officer when he/she has to discuss an incident is to emphasize all of the things that the individual did correctly before/during/after the accident instead of solely dwelling on that person's mistakes. All too often, I've seen safety officers use accidents as an opportunity to scapegoat an individual, all the while ignoring the many things that the individual was doing correctly at the time of the accident (for example, wearing goggles, alerting neighbors of the problem promptly, containing the fire/spill, etc.). I really think that a more balanced message from safety people would make chemists a lot more responsive to their demands.

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10. Harry on May 14, 2007 8:13 PM writes...

TPO'd- there are many many exmples of arylamine derivatives used as theraputics- two right off the top of my head would be sulfanilamide and acetominophen.

I suspect that the reason that aniline was used under a tight protocol is that it is highly toxic and readily absorbed through the skin, causing methemoglobinemia. This property extends to simple analogs, such as the toluidines, but varies greatly with increrasing complexity. 2,6-diethyl aniline, for example is much less toxic than aniline.

With respect to Derek's point- I agree. I worked in a very small company that had a plant that could be charitibly described as being held together with string and spit. We made some very toxic materials (fluoroacteates and various nitriles) and reactive materials, such as sodium amide and sodium alcoholates or Grignard reagents. We also used considerable qunatities (up to tank car loads) of quite hazardous materials , such as sodium , sodium cyanide, chlorine, carbon disulfide, diethyl ether, sulfur trioxide, thionyl chloride, etc.

While we did have a number of fires in the eight years I worked there (with 60-75 employees total), we had an amazingly low accident and injury rate- despite substandard equipment and a minimal safety program and employees training.

In fact - in the entire 30+ years that this facility operated, they did not experience a single fatality. This compares favorably with other facilities I have worked at or been associated with.

At one of these other facilities, a decomposition of still residues in a 2,000 glass-lined reactor progressed to an explosion which killed one man. One of the contributing factos was the fact that when the condenser on the reactor began to be overwhelmed (due to accelerating decomposition), one of the operators actually closed the vent- to prevent an emmisions, thus converting the reactor to a 2,000 gallon autoclave.

This facility had a very comprehensive safety and training program, and was (and still is ) a very good company. However, their emphasis on being environmentally responsible, certainly contributed to this incident.

Having employees that think for themselves, and understand what they are doing, rather than follow procedures blindly seems to me to be more conducive to a safe workplace.

My $0.02, YMMV.

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11. BCP on May 15, 2007 1:19 AM writes...

Handles -- been there brother. I love that kind of attitude -- happy to bust, but not to discuss. It's almost as if the aim is to catch people out rather than to create a safer working environment. How could that be? Hmmmmm.

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12. Daniel Sejer on May 15, 2007 6:15 AM writes...

Interesting post. It actually happened to me once when we were trying to kill off a old THF still. Safety people will not allow you to take the sad still-remains out of the building and dump it in a lake, which would by far be the safest solution (maybe not for the fish). So after spending a week with iso-propanol, followed by absolute ethanol, followed by 96% ethanol, followed by careful addition of small quanteties of water, followed by large quanteties of water we achieved a beautiful sodium bonfire in the hood. I was standing shoulder to shoulder with two other guys right next to the fire extinguisher but we didn't want to pick it up due to the paper work and safety interview nightmare we would be facing. Eventually, we decided to tip some sand on the damn thing but before we managed this the fire fortunately went out by itself. D!

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13. agogmagog on May 15, 2007 12:26 PM writes...

A labmate had a fire in a flask containing NaH/solvent residues. He tipped the burning material onto bench to 'Allow for a better shot', grabbed a fire extinguisher and proceeded to blow burning material over half the lab.

For small fires a metal sand bucket and a fire blanket works nicely. But if you have to think about whether the fire is small enough to pick up and place in the bucket, don't bother.

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14. Anonymous on May 16, 2007 10:31 PM writes...

I discovered quite by accident the best solution to safety officers' paperwork related to incidents that could only charitably be called 'near misses'. Report the incident fully and promptly. Then say that you refuse for ethical reasons to lead an investigation into an incident in which you were a party, and ask that someone else lead the inquiry. The insignificant incident is likely to drop off the radar as no one else will bother to investigate, and no one is poorer for it. I suppose this only works when your safety officer is overworked, but it's worth a shot.

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15. MRS on May 18, 2007 3:22 PM writes...

Great article Derek! Having been under the same safety regime I know your pains. After being freed to spread my evil scale-up thoughts throughout the world I found it refreshing to be entrusted with much of my own safety. However, I will continue to hope for a happy medium after a recent experience in which my colleague and I had to defend our preference to not perform a heated NaH/DMF reaction on multi-kilo scale.

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