Texas Tech Explosion

Just back from vacation, but the story reported in C&E News by Jyllian Kemsley about the explosion at Texas Tech is surely the story of the moment and clearly must be blogged on. ChemJobber and ChemBark are already on the case (getting them mentions on In the Pipeline).

For summary purposes, the lab where the accident happened is engaged in research into potential bomb threats from terrorists that can be made using common components. From what we can gather at this point, the grad student in question made a batch of nickel hydrazine perchlorate and was crushing it “carefully” in a mortar and pestle to get rid of lumps. He removed his safety glasses to inspect, gave it one last stir and that set it off. He suffered several cuts and lost three fingers.

While it was a tragic event, there are a number of points at which I am agog. The lab professor (Louise Hope-Weeks) had told her group not to make more than 100 mg of any energetic compound; they made 10 grams.

As an aside, I love the term energetic compound, a term really meaning “something prone to blowing up suddenly”.

This grad student Preston Brown had a reputation for risky behavior in the lab, with a negligent attitude. He would apparently carry samples of things he had made around the campus. Surely the professor was aware of this? Surely this is not the behavior of someone who was about to obtain a Ph.D.? This seems to be a common question: why was this guy even in the lab and working with chemicals of this type? I’d add the question that why was this the guy training a younger grad student?

The part that really makes me splutter is that this procedure was done in the open lab without a blast shield. But more, the group apparently did not even have a blast shield. A group that routinely makes potential explosive compounds that does not have the most basic safety equipment? It is truly unbelieveable.

A lot more believeable (though still regretable) is the lack of formal training and the lack of proper recording of work in a lab notebook. It is fairly typical for laboratory training to be ‘on-the-job’, an oral tradition passed down from graduating student to the freshman. For most work, this does succeed, though the teacher should be aware of the potential dangers and that a fresh recruit will not have the twin advantages of familiarity and a honed technique. For potentially explosive compiunds, surely the best approach is to assess the technique of the new student using a less fraught target and once confidence is that is established, more hazardous procedures can be negotiated.

As for the notebook, a lab notebook is a place for recording your procedures and observations regarding your work and should be in sufficient detail that it can be repeated by one skilled in the art. Which is not to say that I have seen lab notebooks that were primarily made up of post-it notes.

As ChemJobber has noted in his blog, the primary responsibility for the accident has to fall upon the professor. It is her responsibility to ensure that her students are working safely. Her decree that they should make no more than 100 mg was not enforced or even checked. Training was clearly inadequate and that they had got away without an incident clearly made them over-confident. I am still bewildered by the lack of proper safety equipment – again the responsibility of the principal investigator.

There seems to be a culture here that research is hindered by safe practice. That it is a waste of time. I have seen arguments that this is a reason why companies are moving abroad to do chemistry, so that safety standards can be kept lower and the pace of research can be maintained. I despair of this argument. Working safely does not mean working slowly. It is better to do things right, once, than to do them in a rush several times. So many times the short cuts turn out not to be. Well-trained researchers are an asset. Universities are supposed to be producing these researchers, but it seems that they are more interested in their publications and grants than in the welfare of their students.

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This entry was posted in safety.

3 comments on “Texas Tech Explosion

  1. thoricles says:

    “As ChemJobber has noted in his blog, the primary responsibility for the accident has to fall upon the professor. It is her responsibility to ensure that her students are working safely.”

    Wow, fail. She said no more than 100 mg. He makes 10g. It is her fault. The lack of logic here is astounding.

    If I tell you not to put your knob in conc. sulfuric, and you do, is it my fault?

  2. David Perrey says:

    The professor is ultimately responsible for their students.

    Brown had a history of risky behavior, so why was he not under closer scrutiny?

    Or to rephrase your situation: if you give a pyromaniac a match and say only make a small fire, who’s fault is it that they burned down the house?

  3. Former Chemist says:

    This is all-too common in academic chemistry laboratories. Professors turn a blind eye to the poor training and safety and environmental violations committed by their graduate students. The professor IS responsible, in the technical sense and the ethical sense.

    Poor training, lack of accountability, and negligence led to Sheri Sangji at UCLA setting herself on fire with t-butyllithium and killing herself. Her professor, Patrick Harran is now mired in a huge legal battle with OSHA. … and rightfully so.

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