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Chemical culture ‘needs a safety upgrade’

A number of devastating and sometimes deadly accidents in laboratories have focused the attention of chemists on dangerous practices. But the problem is rooted in the cultures of many academic institutions, which must be changed from the bottom up, a major conference in Philadelphia heard this week.

One of the most high profile accidents in recent years was the death of Sheri Sangji, a chemist who was killed in 2009 after an experiment went wrong at the University of California, Los Angeles. UCLA eventually reached a plea deal with prosecutors over that death although the head of Sangji’s lab still faces charges. In another case that garnered publicity, a graduate student lost several fingers in an explosion in 2010 at Texas Tech University lab in Lubbock (see ‘A death in the lab‘).

“There are all these events that are happening and these are of great concern to many of us. The problem has been here for a long time,” says Robert Hill, a chemist at Atlanta Analytical Services in Battelle, and chair of the American Chemical Society (ACS) Safety Culture Task Force.

He told the ACS meeting in Philadelphia that the Sangji case certainly had a big impact. But beyond looking for the problems that triggered individual accidents, Hill’s task force has been looking deeper, at the culture of chemistry.

A recent report from the task force produced 17 recommendations to create a proper safety culture in academia. These include proper analysis of the hazards associated with all new lab work, establishing incident reporting systems and data bases and setting up a dedicated budget for safety activities. “You can see some people are going to look at these and they’re going to wince. But this is what you need to do,” says Hill.

But at the meeting, the recommendation most stressed by Hill and others is educating the next generation of chemists.

“You need to educate your students in safety,” he says. “So when they get into a situation where it’s their turn to do something about safety they will be making the right kinds of decisions.”

Part of the problem, says Hill, is that many current faculty were not themselves trained in safety. “We have to break the cycle,” he says, and suggests that every undergraduate lab session should include something on safety.

Kenneth Fivizzani, chair of the ACS Divison of Chemical Health and Safety and another member of the task force, says university and faculty have an “ethical obligation” to teach new employees and students about safety. He says grant proposals should all include plans for safety education and oversight, something that is often missing at present. Granting agencies should be brought into play in changing the culture, he says.

Barbara Sawrey, of UC San Diego’s chemistry department, told the meeting that 30 years ago there was little-to-no direct training of students in safety. With strong leadership and pressure from the top and bottom of universities (deans and students) this can change, but the process is a slow one.

“There are many times we move forward in safety one retirement at a time,” says Sawrey.

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    Russell Seitz said:

    Is UCLA to be reformed as a chemistry-free campus, and that dangerous and malodorous disicipline’s practitioners expelled along with owners of internal combustion vehicles, cooks, smokers, candlestick makers and practitioners of all the other dark arts threatening the right to a chemical, biochemical, and odor-free existence?

    What Provost dare allow exothermic reactions on campus in a community that has already banned lighter fluid, let alone single molecules that so far exceed the prescription strength of homeopathic remedies as to threaten decimation on a par with second hand salt, alchohol, tobacco, GM corn pollen, nanoparticulate hepatitis, trans-fats and HIV ?

    Then again they could laugh the underlying lawsuit out of court.

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