A run of bad accident news today, and all of the same kind. The Chemistry Blog has the story of a fatality in the labs at UCLA. The short and painful details are: inexperienced student, t-butyllithium, flammable clothing, and panic (as in not running toward the safety shower).
This is very sad to hear about, and as with so many lab accidents, one of the saddest parts is how easily it could have been prevented. t-BuLi is, of course, a well-known fire starter, and the student did know about that problem. But one of the keys to working with dangerous substances is to think through what you’ll do if something goes wrong. For a pyrophoric compound, that means knowing where the nearest fire extinguisher and safety shower are. It’s very easy to panic when something goes wrong, but if you’ve rehearsed what to do beforehand, you have a much better chance of doing the right thing in tough circumstances.
I pass this along to the students who read this site, and I’m sure the other experienced lab workers here will agree: always think “OK, what’s the worst thing that can go wrong with this reaction?”, and think about what you’ll do if that happens. Fire? Explosion? Sudden leak of nasty toxic stuff? Think it over. Anyone working in a laboratory should always know where the nearest fire extinguisher is. That is, the nearest appropriate one – if you’ve got a separate Class D model for metal fires, or even just a sand bucket, then when you need it you’re really going to need it. And everyone should know where the nearest safety shower is, because no one ever just sort of needs to use one of those. I’ve had to run and pull one once in my career, and let me tell you, it was a damned good thing that I knew where to go when the chips were down.
The other news I have was communicated to me privately, so I won’t go into details other than to say that it appears to be another fatality, this time involving inhalation exposure to trimethylsilyl diazomethane. The problem with these sorts of reagents is that you might think that they’d cause breathing trouble immediately, but you’d be wrong. Diazomethane, phosgene, methyl bromide and others can actually take hours to kill a person, and for a good part of that time, the only symptoms might be a slight cough. But serious lung damage can be coming on slowly during that period, and by the time it’s clear that there’s a problem it’s usually too late to do very much about it. Unfortunately, in some cases, it’s too late right from the start, but that takes quite a bit of exposure, and indicates a serious mistake somewhere along the line.
Anyone who works with such volatile and damaging reagents needs to be completely aware of what they’re doing, and to only handle them under good ventilation. I’ve used such things many, many times in my career, without incident, and so have most working organic chemists. But we should never lose respect for what we’re holding in our hands.
I’m not trying to scare beginning chemists out of doing lab work. It has it hazards, but so does driving to work in the morning or cutting up food for dinner. (When I was in graduate school, my mother once expressed her worries about my lab work, but I told her that the most dangerous thing I did was to drive 650 miles back home on holidays). But every well-appointed chemistry lab is full of death in screw-capped bottles, and that bears thinking about. Random, unforeseeable accidents are, fortunately, very rare. But that means that the others didn’t have to happen, and that’s painful to contemplate.