The United States’ Chemical Safety Board (CSB), which usually investigates large industrial accidents such as refinery explosions, yesterday published its first ever report [pdf] into an accident in an academic lab. The study looks into a January 2010 accident at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where graduate student Preston Brown lost three fingers of his left hand during a dangerous experiment. But the concerns it identifies spread wider than Texas Tech, and are relevant to anyone working in US chemistry laboratories – as Nature discussed after the death of Michele Dufault at Yale University in April.
Brown was grinding up chunks of nickel hydrazine perchlorate — using a hundred times the recommended amount — when it detonated. The CSB found numerous safety gaps leading up to the accident, and a “lack of organizational accountability and oversight” at Texas Tech. Even two previous near-misses in the department hadn’t led to changes in safety culture. (Texas Tech has made changes since the accident). The experiment’s funding agency, the Department of Homeland Security, is also criticized for not demanding specific safety provisions.
The incident raises wider issues, relevant to academia as a whole, the CSB says – concerns that have been widely discussed since 23-year-old research assistant Sheharbano Sangji died after a lab fire at the University of California, Los Angeles, in late 2008. As CSB chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso told a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston last year, “safety practices at US universities leave a lot to be desired”. The CSB has gathered information on 120 different university laboratory incidents since 2001, but that is likely only a fraction of the real number of minor incidents and near-misses never reported. It urges better documentation and communication, and asks for better guidance from bodies such as the American Chemical Society on assessing hazards in chemistry labs. It points out that health and safety personnel should not be merely ‘advisory’ – they or their managers should have the power to make real changes.
As Kenneth Fivizzani (chair of the ACS Chemical Health & Safety Division) tells Chemical & Engineering News in their article on the CSB report, ultimately the attitude of the principal investigator in any laboratory is more important than even best practice guidance, databases, or organizational restructuring. Nature’s April editorial agrees: “Leaders of research projects must take responsibility for the safety of the scientists doing the work, and must start to work with safety officers, rather than endure them … universities and researchers who feel that there are no lessons to learn from such accidents are a danger to themselves and others.”