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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: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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May 22, 2009

Blowups Happen

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Posted by Derek

There's an article up at Slate on the UCLA lab accident death. It finishes up by saying:

If Sheri Sangji's death is to mean anything, it must be that no lab chief—and certainly no federal agency—claiming to further human welfare ever again tolerates the risk of harm to lab workers. That means that university administrators from the provost on down must make safety a serious concern and a requirement for career advancement and hiring, and tenure and promotion committees must hold faculty members responsible for seeing that everyone in their labs has the training, skills, and equipment needed to work safely. Funding agencies must make a good safety record and evidence of safety awareness real conditions for getting and keeping grants. Never again should academic research needlessly claim the life of a researcher.

Brave words, but I feel pretty sure that academic research will, in fact, needlessly claim more lives every so often. You've got a lot of people at widely varying levels of experience (and widely varying levels of sense), working all hours of the day and night, often under pressure to produce results. Accidents will happen.

Now, I think that academic labs could be a lot safer than they are, and that they should be. It's worth taking steps to try to realize that. But if you set the standard as "never again should anything bad happen", you will fail. I've worked in an industrial environment that implemented the fiercest, most draconian safety policy I've ever experienced. Multiple, overlapping layers of safety meetings, with an extensive standardized list of topics that had to be covered every time. Incident reports, discussed in detail, every time. Attendance mandatory, and logged on a signup sheet, and tied to bonus payouts. Multiple, overlapping layers of documentation, countersignatures, standard operating procedures, etc. And we still had explosions, due to varying amounts of cluelessness, stupidity, and just plain bad luck.

They will happen. They should be minimized, prepared for, and guarded against. But acting as if there's a policy which will prevent them is foolish, and risks making the perfect the enemy of the good.

Comments (49) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Safety Warnings


COMMENTS

1. bad wolf on May 22, 2009 10:56 AM writes...

I just went to the Harran website at UCLA and found when you click on the "safety" tab:
Not Found
The requested URL was not found on this server.

Message?

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2. Jose on May 22, 2009 11:11 AM writes...

I had several reactions in grad school that worked on small scale, and then my PI looks at me like I am a moron, and said, "well, just scale it up!" We're talking things like HMPA, large xs bromine, mercury salts, aqueous thallium salts, carbon tet, and the like. We usually didn't wear labcoats, or have any glassware suitable for 30g scale reactions. The UCLA story is tragic, but I don't expect things to change.

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3. milkshake on May 22, 2009 11:45 AM writes...

when someone dies this usually brings about some changes - until the lesson is forgotten and repeated.

Freshmen about to enter the synthetic lab should be given a writeup/unofficial summary of the most common hazards there - by a synthetic chemist (not a safety officer) - and they should be watched and kibitzed by a postdoc/senior student for at least first two years.

Pushy bosses hurriing their people are the biggest risk. One does not even have to have a fire, exotherm and or spill - wasting 10g of an advanced material in one poorly controlled experiment feels stupid enough

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4. Caleb on May 22, 2009 11:52 AM writes...

Very true. As a current graduate student and "lab safety officer" I've observed that no matter how many times you remind people of appropriate safety measures, some fraction choose to ignore it.

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5. anon-e on May 22, 2009 12:02 PM writes...

"Very true. As a current graduate student and "lab safety officer" I've observed that no matter how many times you remind people of appropriate safety measures, some fraction choose to ignore it. "

Or was it they didnt understand spoken English? Sometimes I wonder.

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6. Hap on May 22, 2009 12:10 PM writes...

It sounds a little too much like the old "there shouldn't be any hazards" line, which doesn't make much sense, because we take large hazards every day (driving) - we just get benefits from them worthy of the risk. Even "needless hazards" doesn't much help, because what your concept of needless is depends on what you think ought to be done. People are working on unknowns with unknown potential risks, and in general working with things that already have significant risks. Not doing anything risky means not doing anything, which has risks of its own.

When I was in graduate school, safety was barely on the menu. I don't think professors were necessarily cavalier, but there was little explicit training on the hazards of various types of things and how to avoid them or minimize their possible effects. Waste disposal or safe storage and cataloging wasn't really dealt with. If industry (with time pressures and monetary pressures galore) can manage safety, I don't really see why universities (who get lots of overhead money to manage those sorts of things) and professors cannot afford to do so. I think schools don't want bad things to happen, but don't really want to expend effort and money to prevent them.

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7. Those Damned Inflatable Iguanas on May 22, 2009 12:27 PM writes...

I have worked in academia, large pharma, and small biotech, and am always amazed at the scary diversity in training and attention to personal and corporate safety by both individuals and management.

I always compare lab safety to safety in sports. Kids learn very early why they need protective equipment. I don't know of any coach or parent that would allow a kid playing baseball to go to bat without a helmet on, or play hockey without pads. And I don't know any kid that would step up to the plate without it on as well, regardless of their experience.

Similarly why should a lab manager let someone work in a hood without safety glasses or lab coat, or even why a researcher wouldn't feel "naked" (I do) without those on.

There also is a personal and professional responsibility that comes with understanding the safety in chemistry (or any other experimental science). And I think this element is not drilled into people often enough, regardless of their experience.

I don't necessarily have an overarching solution to this other than good training and paying attention to your work and others and the potential hazards.

One of the most effective methods I saw was a professor down the hall in grad school would have a new student place a few mgs of reactive peroxide (the lab focused on organic peroxides) on the end of a spatula and have them touch a hot plate. The explosive result made the students treat all their compounds, regardless of scale, with the utmost care and respect, including personal safety.

But of course, our lab didn't have enough sense or enough respect for safety (boy, were we green and stupid) to move the 3L THF, toluene, DCM, and ether stills into the hoods!

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8. JSinger on May 22, 2009 1:11 PM writes...

I love the caption under Slate's requisite photo of a "chemist" staring into a tube of brightly colored liquid...

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9. cientificorojo on May 22, 2009 1:25 PM writes...

re JSinger:

Slate's "chemist" is even wearing a tie!

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10. Novice Professor on May 22, 2009 1:59 PM writes...

If they want professors to be more serious about safety, why do so many universities place the financial burden of safety on the professors themselves? This gives an economic incentive to cut corners. At the last three universities I have been with, all of them require the PI to purchase solvent waste drums, secondary containers and even labels. Some even have the PIs pay for waste disposal. Hmmmm, pay $300 to dispose of an old bottle of nBuli, or quench it yourself and dump it in the solvent waste. It's no wonder things are this way!

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11. Dave on May 22, 2009 2:27 PM writes...

A tie, yes. But no gloves. A possible safety risk there, no?

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12. CMCguy on May 22, 2009 2:33 PM writes...

Academic labs could do better but it is an inherent challenge. As noted the experience and sensibility levels can be quite variable but attitudes, stressfulness and awareness likewise play roles for less than optimal safety. In general academia lacks maturity in some of these areas whereas in industry most people coming in have already learned or matured beyond minimal levels. Universities, Departments and Profs can set the tone with building/maintaining adequate facilities, equipment and resources (staff, training and readily available literature). Yes it can be costly for something but much involves making sure people are informed and trained appropriately. Not sure some of the rules/programs in industry would be that productive in Univ research environment, because they can be stifling at times, and are counter to nature of research (based on all the grumblings from those impacted). "Zero tolerance" type actions sound nice but practical implications can be taken to extremes.

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13. david on May 22, 2009 3:12 PM writes...

I would have to agree with Hap: there are lots of other risks out there which we seem to accept quite readily ~40K fatalities on our roads...no discussion ever (it seems), we can live with that...
Point is: try to minimize risks wherever possible, but be realistic in what's possible and fair and balanced in reporting about it.

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14. Jan Teller Jr on May 22, 2009 3:16 PM writes...

I cannot agree more with milkshake´s comment.

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15. Chemjobber on May 22, 2009 3:20 PM writes...

Derek is a classy guy, so he didn't point out that Ms. Benderly's facts are um, shall we say, ridiculous. Ms. Sangji was not a biochemist working in a biochemistry lab. She was using a 60 mL syringe, not a freakin' tablespoon (as her prose strongly suggests.)

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16. Brooks Moses on May 22, 2009 4:04 PM writes...

One thing that I thought was a good idea in the High Temperature Gas Dynamics Laboratory of Stanford's Mechanical Engineering department, where I once worked: Every year, at the conclusion of the student seminar series, there's an award for the best presentation -- and it's given in memoriam of a grad student who died in a lab accident.

The effect of this is that, though the accident happened 35 years ago, I can tell you the fellow's name (Chuck Hawley), and what happened to him: he was working alone late one night on a high-powered laser, and unfortunately got caught in the intersection of water cooling and high-voltage power with nobody around to notice or call for help.

I don't know if this started out intentionally as a way to make sure the lesson wasn't "forgotten and repeated" (as milkshake said), or just a way of memorializing him, but it seems effective at remembering the lesson regardless -- especially since it's a fairly coveted student award.

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17. Jan Teller Jr on May 22, 2009 4:48 PM writes...

Not quite long time ago, a distinguished academic defined himself and the ideal PI, as a guy who inspire students, postdocs or employees, but also enables things to happen.

Is it too much to ask that unexperienced people is properly guided and assisted at the beginning of their careers. Is it too much to ask for the punishment of careless and moronic attitudes in laoratories, irrespectively of the position in the hierarchy of the individual (IMHO this is quite often the major issue).

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18. Nick K on May 23, 2009 5:45 AM writes...

Very wise comment from Derek: you can NEVER "legislate" against accidents, and merely increasing the bureaucratic burden in safety assessments and forms is ineffective or even counterproductive. The risk-averse Health and Safety culture in the UK is particularly pernicious as it removes the initiative from experienced people.

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19. Iridium on May 23, 2009 5:32 PM writes...

The incident at UCLA involving Ms. Sangji was noted in my current department (high ranking T1 chem dept) long before it hit mainstream news and since then the safety teams have been swinging away frantically with the policy bat. Sometimes the policies, though maybe good intentioned, don't make much sense (access to the liq N2 is via key card only and only 2 people per group in a several hundred student program can have access?!?).

As others have said already, what probably contributes significantly to academia's slacking on safety is a true lack of appreciation for the hazards and bad guidance/pressure from the PIs. I've worked in 3 different chemistry departments and each required all new personel to take some sort of safety training course (each case was different in how thoroughly things were addressed). I would imagine other schools would have similar programs so most young scientists should be informed about safety and proper conduct in handling lab hazards, but I think most of them simply don't appreciate the hazards until they're too late or simply don't care. In some cases individuals simply do not learn the proper techniques for handling very hazardous materials and it is truly sad when accidents arise in these situations because they could have been avoided. Most other cases are I belive are typically due to not caring or stupidity. A few examples: 1) as an undergraduate I worked with a 5th-6th year grad student that never wore gloves, goggles, or lab coat (unless he was working with a teratogen or something guarenteed to blow up), even though he had 2 explosions in the short time I worked with him; 2) my current department just released a revised set of safety rules in light of the recent UCLA incident. One thing that is stipulated is that all pertinent PPE (goggles, gloves, flame-retarded lab coat, etc) will be worn at all times, regardless. Since I arrived here, there is a very prominent organic methodology group where many of the members regularly wear flip-flops, shorts, and/or no lab coats. And apparently they continue to do so after the department's recent policy release (no departmental reprimands, no enforcement by the PI, nothing).

While I admit that there are times when I do not wear gloves or my goggles, they are always times where I am doing something very inocuous that really has zero potential to do me harm. However, like in the two examples I gave above, some people really don't care about their safety or simply won't start caring until it is too late. It's their body so they'll eventually pay the price...followed by the department.

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20. CHEMS-R-US on May 23, 2009 9:33 PM writes...

Iridium:

"While I admit that there are times when I do not wear gloves or my goggles, they are always times where I am doing something very inocuous that really has zero potential to do me harm."

That is exactly the behavior that you are criticizing in others. Ideally, a worker should feel 'naked' if he/she is in the lab and not wearing PPE

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21. fragment_boy on May 24, 2009 5:12 AM writes...

Working more in the biology field I must admit to not always wearing the full PFE - and I am not proud to admit it.

In the academic department (in the UK) that I work there is a mix of biochemistry and med-chem. I questioned the safety procedures when an unsupervised masters student broke an expensive piece of equipment very late at night...... in the chemistry lab that I did my degree and PhD in undergraduates and masters students had to be out of the lab by 17.30 and not work weekends.

I was told that in a building of 800 researchers, as long as there was a security guard at reception, there was no limit on what _any_ one did........

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22. ortholithiation on May 25, 2009 7:55 AM writes...

All the safety training in the world could not have prevented this accident and many others I'm afraid.
You know why?? It's because doing chemistry requires skill and knowledge that can't be taught in a book or in a safety course. It's up to us to teach the new crop of students not to do this, or be careful with that, or you better wear gloves when you touch that.
The thing is everyone knows it too. Everyone goes to the general safety course and falls asleep because its bullshit. It can't teach you that taking 60 mL of t-buli in with a 16 gauge needle is a bad idea, or to use crushed ice to slowly quench reaction X, or that volatile compound will turn your lungs to mush.
A real chemistry orientated safety session that addresses specific topics like, gas evolution, run away reactions, common reactive chemicals, and nasty shit you should avoid would be a step in the right direction.
I would trade all the safety sessions in the world for having competent experienced people in the lab keeping a watchful eye on new students, and impose a strict no working graveyard shift hours.

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23. cookingwithsolvents on May 25, 2009 10:18 AM writes...

Developing and MAINTAINING a culture of safety awareness is one of the primary responsibilities of each PI. Recognizing that you are taking your life into your own hands every time you step into a research laboratory is the responsibility of each and every researcher.

The two have to actively work together along with the rest of the lab to ensure the safest possible working environment. Safety is a verb, it's something you do, it's how you approach your work. There has to be no other way with the hazards around that we have in our laboratories. Advanced/experienced researchers internalize safety protocols to the point where it's second nature but neglecting them through blind carelessness bites even the most experienced scientist. Everyone here has had or seen some close calls, not to mention any incidents on top of it.

I've found that it is best to explicitly state the hazard, often and early in someones intellectual development. Time-consuming introductory safety lectures are cool and all but a one-on-one, face-to-face with EYE CONTACT "you could die here if you do not think about everything you do" gets the point across far better in most cases. Sure, that makes people nervous and that's bad but I believe the impact factor is first and foremost. Thinking about what you are doing isn't just key to safety. . .it also is part of how you be a better scientist rather than a trained pair of hands.

I totally agree with o-Li's comment that it is critical to have experienced researchers looking over the shoulder of new recruits. It fits within my "culture of safety" mantra for the lab. It's a lot of vigilance to maintain but it helps prevent accidents and pays serious dividends in lab morale and also scientifically when persons A and B actually talk about their research and come up with new, cool ideas (or even when person B gets more of a clue about what they are doing).

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24. Iridium on May 25, 2009 10:51 AM writes...

CHEMS-R-US:

I realize that criticizing others for lapses in safety when I openly admitted not wearing gloves or goggles in some situations is hypocritical. However, ones needs to think a little more critically here. There is a big difference between someone wearing ZERO PPE and inappropriate clothing essentially all the time compared to me not wearing gloves and goggles when making an aqueous sodium acetate solution. The former situation provides ample opportunity for bodily harm, the latter means I simply need to wash my hands if I spill the solution on me.

I would be quite surprised if most of the scientists who read this blog claimed to have worn all typical pieces of PPE (gloves, goggles, lab coat) every minute they have peformed laboratory work or have ever been in a lab. This means never having touched something with your bare hands or taken off your goggles until you've gone home for the day. While I agree that scientists should 'feel naked' without their PPE and take measures so that they are always protected, the 'zero tolerance, zero accidents' mentality is too idealistic to be reality. As described in my examples above and previous comment, there is a big difference between someone being grossly neglegant in general when it comes to PPE and someone choosing not to wear PPE for a relatively safe activity. If we want to impose a utopian safety environment then we might as well just live in bubbles or hazmat suits because there are just as many corrosive, toxic and hazardous things the average person has access to everyday that scientists work with in the lab.

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25. Chemjobber on May 25, 2009 10:26 PM writes...

I agree with Iridium's comments on the varying levels of PPE. There's even a certain level of common sense, when your hood is next to your desk (as is very common in academia). Do you expect a grad student to be wearing full PPE while he's eating his sandwich?

It's only after you reach industry that you realize the ideal level of PPE that can only be supported by real threats of punitive measures and nourished by a real safety culture.

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26. CHEMS-R-US on May 25, 2009 11:13 PM writes...

"Do you expect a grad student to be wearing full PPE while he's eating his sandwich?"
I would expect the graduate student to eat the sandwich outside the lab, so no, I would not expect him/her to be wearing full PPE while eating.
Otherwise, I have to agree with both Iridium/Chemjobber about the use of common sense when choosing PPE

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27. OZ on May 25, 2009 11:35 PM writes...

Sad but very true Dr. Lowe. A good point. And worth stating.

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28. srp on May 26, 2009 1:24 AM writes...

Does anyone think that more comfortable/better PPE would increase usage? For example, are the goggles annoying to wear? I know that I don't always wear safety glasses on those infrequent occasions when I'm using a drill or a hammer at home partly because they slip or obstruct my vision.

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29. DrSnowboard on May 26, 2009 4:13 AM writes...

PPE is a difficult concept to police, partly because I think right from academia, NOT wearing a labcoat is associated with higher status / experience. Didn't you find that it was the final years / postdocs who wore them less?

For me, lab specs are a reflex - without them I feel naked like you do when you try and drive without a seatbelt. Culture here is for anyone to call someone on not wearing specs, be it transient biologist, engineer or research head. They get handed a pair. Sadly, labcoat is less well adhered to, but I will endeavour to lead by example.

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30. RB Woodweird on May 26, 2009 9:25 AM writes...

What do you mean? Of course we can legislate out the hazards. Just like we sefened up all those dangerous chemistry kits you prototerrorists used to play with as kids, with your muriatic acid and your flake sulfur. Well, we replaced those with distilled water and table salt. Now you can just replace that nasty t-butyl lithium with something safer, like vinegar. Problem solved. Just don't get that stuff on a paper cut.

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31. anonymous on May 26, 2009 10:00 AM writes...

"All the safety training in the world could not have prevented this accident and many others I'm afraid."

ortholithiation, while I otherwise completely agree with your post, one can take some issue with this statement. Safety training may not have prevented the accident, but it could have changed the eventual outcome. Lack of technical skill might have led to the plunger popping out of that syringe of tBuLi anyway. However, an engrained safety culture--one where you would never do such an experiment without a lab coat and other PPE--could have literally made the difference between life and death in this case.

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32. No. 6 on May 26, 2009 11:45 AM writes...

I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own!

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33. stayawayfromtheirhood on May 27, 2009 7:02 AM writes...

There is no reason you can't "scale" up reactions safely, these "scales" could hardly be considered significant anyway. The most dangerous part of working in a lab is the bonehead next to you who thinks they know everything, doesn't do the research, get the advice, and take the precautions. Even worse, most simply just don't care, especially those from places where life is cheap. All the training in the world won't help them. As with the idiot that offed themselves in Nova Scotia, I'm glad I wasn't standing next to them!

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34. quencher on May 27, 2009 7:06 AM writes...

To "noviceprofessor", if you can't quench a little bottle of a pyrophoric reagent safely, you're in the wrong business!!

Maybe you should start working with proteins.

What stupidity.......

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35. RB Woodweird on May 27, 2009 8:36 AM writes...

quencher sez:

"To "noviceprofessor", if you can't quench a little bottle of a pyrophoric reagent safely, you're in the wrong business!!

Maybe you should start working with proteins.

What stupidity......."

As a long time bench hobbit, that is my first response as well, but if I take a step back I recognize my feelings as part of the problem. The attitude of "what are you, a pussy? just get your hands in there and run that reaction" can intimidate someone, especially someone with less experience/standing, into going places that maybe should be approached with more caution.

Plus, noviceprofessor is sure not going to be quenching that bottle of alkyl lithium. It's going to be delegated to some raw graduate student who may or may not do it safely.

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36. CMCguy on May 27, 2009 10:25 AM writes...

#34 actually there is potential that if noviceprofessor did do the quench himself, or had student do, he would be in violation of EPA or local laws on waste disposal. We ran in to such a problem when our EH&S Dept pointed out these rules and stopped what was a common practice for purging old reagents. We knew it was more unsafe to hold the bottles till they could be "properly disposed" (very costly) but in many cases Regs/Laws and Commonsense (or Science) sometimes do not shake hands.

#33 although good point that often person next to you that should worry about, your comment on NS incident is what is idiotic.

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37. naked chemist on May 27, 2009 11:26 AM writes...

While I think most people here agree that safety glasses are a “duh” when it comes to PPE, I am surprised by how many people seem to feel the same way about lab coats. I’m curious why. (We are beginning a pretty heated discussion over a lab coat requirement at my site.)

I feel like a lab coat is supposed to prevent chemical exposure. It probably does for little drips and splashes. But like a pair of gloves, I feel I’m really only protected if I constantly switch out lab coats for a clean one. If you’re not switching out your lab coat (daily? weekly? monthly?) then I think you are likely giving yourself a false sense of security WHILE you are continually exposing yourself to who-knows-what has soaked into and accumulated on the coat.

If a lab coat is more supposed to prevent against fire, then you compromise your protection against chemical exposure, as those synthetic materials are easily penetrated by chemicals.

Also, I feel like lab coats are cumbersome and hot. I think there is something to be said for feeling comfortable and agile during a lot of our work.

I typically only use a lab coat when working with acids or bases, (only because I’d rather find holes in it than in my jeans or shirts), or if I’m working with something I feel is particularly nasty.

In general, I don’t wear one.

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38. ortholithiation on May 27, 2009 11:43 AM writes...

Wear a 100% cotton lab coat. It won't last as long, and will get dirty easily, but at least it's not solid gasoline (polyester).

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39. Alig on May 27, 2009 1:23 PM writes...

While quenching an old bottle of butyl lithium might violate EPA rules for disposal of hazardous material, performing a reaction such as deprotonating isopropanol (or addition to ethyl acetate) does not. It's all in how the procedure is discribed. Same with acid and bases, you are not neutralizing for disposal, you are adjusting the pH as part of the reaction.

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40. Cloud on May 27, 2009 2:07 PM writes...

@naked chemist- the lab coat also protects the other people you come into contact with OUTSIDE the lab from cross-contamination by your contaminated clothing. You remove the lab coat and leave it in the lab, leaving any chemicals that you got on yourself behind. Without the lab coat- you take those chemicals with you, unless you change your clothes before you leave the lab.

You may think that the chemical you've just spilled on your jeans is innocuous, but the pregnant woman who comes and sits on the lunch room chair after you may have very different toxicological thresholds. You don't really have the right to decide for her what is "safe".

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41. Joesephpeabody on May 27, 2009 5:14 PM writes...

Hmm:
> I totally agree with o-Li's comment that it is critical to have
> experienced researchers looking over the shoulder of new
> recruits. It fits within my "culture of safety" mantra for the lab.

Great, but I see two caveats in the preceding statement:

(1) experienced _English speaking_ researchers looking over the shoulder. Also ones who don't come from places around the world where life and salaries are cheap.

(2) If the PI is not willing/able to provide for a safe laboratory in the preceding context, then the buck stops with him/her.

My own comment: in their desperation to achieve tenure and publish one more highly rated paper than the "Jones", many PIs forget that they are working at an educational institution and their PhD students are in _training_.

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42. Z on May 27, 2009 6:22 PM writes...

Cloud (#40) said, "the lab coat also protects the other people you come into contact with OUTSIDE the lab from cross-contamination by your contaminated clothing."

How many chemicals do you think most people are spilling all over their clothing? I understand that some people are messier than others, but, if you are reasonably careful, it is very easy to avoid spilling anything on yourself. I get nothing noticeable on my clothes, and probably nothing that could be transferred to someone else in any detectable or dangerous quantity. If an accident does happen, then, obviously, I would change before going about the rest of my day.

Gloves are a different matter, because you actually use your hands to touch and manipulate things that have been in contact with chemicals, so I change my gloves rather frequently. But I don't do chemistry with the rest of my body, so, barring an accident, my clothing isn't contaminated.

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43. Bored on May 27, 2009 9:47 PM writes...

The Apollo 1 pad fire, the Challenger and Columbia accidents occured because people (management) became convinced that because certain procedures had not led to problems in the past, those procedures were "safe", even though those same conditions had at one time been considered "unsafe." That is the thrill of Russian Roulette.

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44. Cloud on May 27, 2009 11:26 PM writes...

@Z- I have worked in a chemistry lab, albeit a long, long time ago. I saw spills, and I suspect so have you. The worst handled spill I ever saw was in a bio lab, but I suspect there are plenty of chemistry slobs, too. I agree that gloves are more important than a lab coat for preventing cross-contamination, but you lean against lab benches and other surfaces. Even if you didn't spill anything on that bench, are you sure no one else did? I always saw the lab coat as just good hygiene, helping to keep the lab in the lab and not in the lunchroom.

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45. Incha on May 28, 2009 12:05 PM writes...

I couldn't agree more with Cloud, a labcoat should be the same as safety specs, you wear them in the lab no matter what you are doing. Its just good practice for a start. And as has been posted many times on this blog, you never know what the idiot next to you is going to do - I have worked beside too many people who vigorously shake their separating funnels outside of the hood-, or when you might be called upon to help one of your colleagues out to prevent a fire or a spill. The time it takes to locate and put on a lab coat may be really important.

Similarly why wear gloves then leave your arms bare (or your legs for the short wearers). Things splash without you knowing it - drips from pipettes, that last drop from the end of the separating funnel, and though individually these chemicals in such quantities may have little harmful effect, think of a working lifetimes worth all added together.

Most importantly when things go wrong it is easy to get your burning/contaminated labcoat off, throw it in the bin and buy a new one. Not so easy to get that burning tshirt off over your head, or take off the shirt and jeans that just got sprayed with acid. There really is no excuse not to wear one - they are provided for your safety.

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46. naked chemist on May 28, 2009 3:14 PM writes...

@ cloud @ Incha.

I understand the logic of cross contamination, and agree. But you didn't address one of my concerns. Cotton is a very absorbent material. When it does absorb, you're then transferring chemicals onto your clothing, into the lunchroom, and right to that pregnant woman's unborn baby anyway. You're no better off than if you didn't have a coat on in the first place. In fact, I think lab coats can put people at an even greater risk. Yes, I said it. Perhaps the culture is different at your site. But here, people go months without washing their coats. I hate to imagine the accumulated chemical contamination, and if it has absorbed/penetrated the coat, the increased amount of chemical contaminants then transferred to their clothing. Again, I mumble a false sense of security.

Do you wash your lab coat nightly and change it out like a pair of gloves? I think this is the only way a lab coat is really effective.

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47. Jan Teller Jr. on May 28, 2009 4:44 PM writes...

After being 5+ years doing org and inorgchemistry, and having dealt with some lethal and intimidating reagents, finally the other day I had my first accident in a lab.

It wasnt dealing with 50g of TMSCN or an accident cannulating a 2L t-BuLi 1.7M solution or doing a funky dihydroxylation with OsO4, or something related with a clunsy undergraduate playing around with HF to do a troublesome deprotection.

Guess what?

First hour in the morning, cocky and laid-back attitude in the lab thinking about the chemistry due that day. I forgot to put on my googles.All the magnets in a beaker with HCl, 1,2,3...splash magnet to the beaker and two drops of concentrated HCl went straight to my cornea...blind and in pain quite luckyly people was around to help me on my way to the lab shower..and no major consequences

I guess I learnt my lesson.

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48. Jose on May 28, 2009 5:23 PM writes...

"My own comment: in their desperation to achieve tenure and publish one more highly rated paper than the "Jones", many PIs forget that they are working at an educational institution and their PhD students are in _training_."

In essentially all top-flight US organic groups, training and education are wholly unintentional (albeit useful) side products of the tenure-grant money-ego system.

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49. Jack on June 16, 2009 1:01 AM writes...

The most dangerous chemists I have worked with come from Russia and China. Life is cheap there and therefore safety is not a priority.

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