The recent death of a UCLA graduate student technician from a t-Butyl lithium fire has made its way around the blogosphere and even the inbox of my personal email account. The news is, of course, shocking and sad, but accidents in academic labs are likely an underrepresented phenomenon. Having been around to different schools and working in a few labs now, both in academia and in industry, the conditions for academics are… well… appalling.
I could get into the problems of waste disposal (while it isn’t legal to dump chemicals down the drain in the South and Mid-West, it might as well be, since no one would know or care), inefficient hoods that are incorrectly or poorly calibrated, insufficient federal or state inspections, but that’s hardly even the first step. The conditions in academic labs are so disparagingly bad, that the first step is fundamentally educational in nature. t-Butyl lithium fires shouldn’t happen in a lab and when one occurs, it shouldn’t cause someone to die. This isn’t necessarily just picking on UCLA, but, even in hyper regulated California, the amount of readiness for an accident compared to a company like Eli Lilly is insignificant.
Here is a little story about something that happened as an undergrad… A post doc was weighing out dry NaH on a balance for some reaction. Instead of putting the NaH directly in the flask after weighing it out (the balances were, of course, not in a hood) he just walked it over with weigh paper. How many times have I seen this done by people? Fuck… lots. Not with dry NaH – admittedly that was just stupid, but I’ve certainly seen people do it with other nasty compounds. Anyway, one of those magical gusts of lab wind took the paper and tossed the powdered NaH into the air and POOF! instant fucking fire. The solid landed on the ground and started to burn the linoleum. The post-doc, in his absence of training, grabbed the fire extinguisher off the wall and pointed and hosed the flaming compound down. . . POOF! instant fucking giant lab fire. The burning metal was broadcast all over the wooden cabinets, sink, hoods…
No one was hurt. This could have been prevented with a bit of education. Putting lab balances in a hood is more than a good idea, it should be a law – but I appreciate the tight budgets most of us are in and hoods are expensive. So we compromise and put the balances outside the hoods. Would this fly at Lilly? Fuck no. Hazardous chemicals are measured in hoods. Period. End-of-fucking-story.
A personal pet peeve of mine are the nefarious broken NMR tubes… NMR tubes are pricey and, as such, we are forbidden from disposing of them if they aren’t totally fucked 9 ways from Sunday. Consequently, many of the NMR tubes in our lab have chips missing from the tops (all but mine now). How many times have I stabbed myself while putting an NMR tube cap on and slipping? TWICE. Once was too much. I now throw out the NMR tubes and buy new ones. If my boss wants to fire me, he can, but I’m never stabbing myself with one of those glassy shanks again. If the damage isn’t too bad and it’s a low end tube, I’ll take it to the glass shop and have them cut the top down but I’m never going to shank my fucking hand on those again. I got a free tetanus shot out of it with workman’s comp, however. That bitch stings, too.
There a countless examples of academic labs being cheap. They under prepare their students for the dangers in the lab and tell them nothing about, you know, how to quench sodium metal. It’s like “don’t drop this on your balls” is about as sound safety advice as you’re going to get. It’s pretty much like working in a third world nation. We are paid dick, have ungodly working hours and unsafe conditions… and it’s all supported by federal research dollars.
Where’s my hazmat training? Where’s my class D fire extinguisher? Why aren’t my hoods calibrated to OSHA standards? Why aren’t the people in my lab compelled to wear glasses and lab coats? WTF is up with this?
I’m writing my senator today to tell them that there are no regulations on safety training in acadmic labs. This is probably going to piss people off but, if I had to guess, it may have saved a life had someone done it last year.