Professor Harran Arraigned

As reported by C&E News (with further commentary from the ever-present ChemJobber), Professor Patrick Harran was arraigned in LA court yesterday, on 3 felony charges of labor code violations. The next court date is October 9th, when a preliminary hearing will be held and the court will decide if there is enough evidence to go to a full trial. The court entered a plea of not guilty on behalf of the defendant, whose legal team had objected to the arraignment even occurring.

That it has got this far is amazing to me. I fully expected some sort of deal would be made, but it appears that all chances of that have ended, with offers from the DA office being rescinded. Perhaps they will work something out. Perhaps they are banking on the testimony of the investigator being thrown out. That seems likes a very risky strategy to me. I agree with CJ, I never thought this would actually go to trial, but as it stands, it is a judge’s decision away from doing exactly that.

Stupid Things to do with Liquid Nitrogen

I like explosions. I think a lot of chemists get into chemistry because of the excitement of sodium in water or the Thermite reaction. But it is all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Or a hand.

Paul at ChemBark posted a video of someone messing with liquid nitrogen. Go watch it if you haven’t already. Myself, I sat there literally stunned afterwards, possibly for as long as the video itself was – a historic ratio. I could not believe how dumb the people shooting the video were being.

The lack of any kind of appropriate protective equipment is the first sign (the single latex glove when the fool picks up the bottle again doesn’t quite count). The lack of any consideration about what might go wrong is another. They at least were not idiotic enough to use a glass bottle for their little experiment.

The point here is that most accidents happen when the person involved does not consider the consequence or simply does not understand what is going on in the flask and what that means. In this case, liquid nitrogen becoming gaseous nitrogen. The transition from liquid to gas creates pressure. The extremely low temperature of the liquid nitrogen certainly caused the plastic of the bottle to become brittle. The touch of the warm hand more than likely caused a weak point to form, setting off the destruction that followed.

Controlled explosions – fireworks for example – are definitely fun. I’ll even go for a dry ice in a bottle explosion for some silly entertainment, but I’ll make sure it is WAY over there and I am safely over here.

Felony Charges for UCLA and Professor Harran

Few will forget the tragic circumstances around the death of young chemist Sheri Sangji, who died from injuries sustained while using t-butyl lithium in the laboratory of Professor Patrick Harran at UCLA. The amazing report of Jyllian Kemsley in C&E News is here. I wrote about it back then too.

This story took another turn when the Los Angeles district attorney’s office filed felony charges against both UCLA and Professor Harran. The LA Times report is here.

This obviously is a huge story in the chemistry blogosphere, with ChemBark, ChemJobber, the Chemistry Blog and of course In The Pipeline posting on the subject today. There are some very thoughtful opinions in that list.

I found myself nodding along with a lot of what has already been written. Criminal charges do seem extreme for a professor, but there is the pervading sense that academic safety is not taken very seriously. And this professor was the one who was unlucky enough to be the one that had the fatal accident in his lab. But let us not forgot that part, the most important: someone died in this incident, a young life taken away. If nothing else, it brings into sharp relief the importance of being safe in the lab and the culture of long hours and minimal oversight needs to end. Industry has much higher standards of safety because it will affect their business if they do not. And this in labs where there are often people there with 10 or more years of experience. The person in an academic lab with even 5 years is considered a grizzled veteran.

There is a danger of over-reaction. Of imposing such stringent safety measures that research becomes painfully slow. But there is certainly a balance that can be attained between getting work done and doing it safely and that is a balance that (if you’ll forgive the huge generalization) academic labs have yet to achieve.

Update: Some interesting thoughts from Curious Wavefunction on the culpability of the professor in this case and an excellent piece from Jyllian Kemsley, summarizing the situation, tackling some misperceptions and also including quite a blog roll of folks who have written about the subject this week.

Demystifying the White Powder

An update on the ‘mysterious white powder’ of my last post. It was the subject of some interest in the department today and we resolved to identify it.

Some crude analysis of the powder: it fizzes when you add it to a solution of HCl – almost certainly a carbonate of some sort.

The pH of the powder dissolved in water was done independently twice (I did it and then my lab mate did it not knowing I had already done it!) and we both got a pH of 11-12 – consistent (see this table) with either sodium carbonate or potassium carbonate (not bicarbonate, which would be more like a pH of 8-9).

I jokingly suggested that we should do a flame test on it next. Well, it turned out we have the capacity to do so and it was determined quite conclusively that it was in fact sodium carbonate. Debate rages on whether it is the anhydrous form or a decahydrate.

Mysterious White Powder With Every Purchase

My colleague in the lab got a chemical delivered today. It was trimethylsilyl cyanide, so it came by truck as it is quite hazardous. It was a 25 gram bottle but the can it arrived in weighed considerably more than that and when he opened it we discovered why: it was filled with packing material.

Packing material is common enough in the chemical shipment arena, as it is not really a desirable outcome to have the bottle break in transit, especially when they contain highly toxic or reactive chemicals. Generally the packaging is in multiple layers, with packing peanuts or vermiculite.

Not so this package, with the weight of it mainly coming from a white powder, packed inside the can which contained the chemical itself and the can that the can was in. Really not taking any chances.

I probably wouldn’t have blogged on this if it were not for one additional fact: the white powder was not identified anywhere. Not on the outside of the box, not on either of the cans. And, unless my Google-fu has failed me (good chance), not anywhere on the company web-site either.

We concluded that it was something like sodium bicarbonate. Something mildly basic anyway, to prevent a release of cyanide gas. But that it was not identified anywhere astounded me. You can’t just send that much ‘mysterious white powder’ through the mail, surely?

Safety Chain

We all want to be safe in the lab but, human nature being what it is, we are not always rigorous about doing everything exactly as it should be. The first person you think about in the lab is yourself – what are you doing, what could go wrong? But the next person you think about is your lab partner and it is a little different, as you are not really thinking about what he might do (though if he is doing something clearly unsafe, you should step in) but more how might what you are doing will affect him and also how you are doing it will affect his opinion of you. In other words, you don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of a peer. Likewise, mutually acceptable bad habits are tacitly reinforced.

Bad habits aren’t necessarily submerged when you share a lab with a conscientious worker, though pressure from a more senior level might do it. If your boss or supervisor is a stickler for safety, it is a good bet you are too and again, if they let things slide, chances are you won’t be the one to make trouble and take a stand.

What makes a supervisor strict on safety? Well, the collection of his own experiences in the lab, his training and mentors. But pressure from his superior makes a big difference too, especially on the enforcement of safety policy. Lots of companies have extensive safety policies and procedures but it is only with enforcement and reinforcement that they become part of the safety culture of a place.

I have seen many times a particular incident, maybe only a minor infraction of the safety rules, but noticed by the right person and suddenly that minor rule becomes of vital importance that everyone follows it to the letter. These show that when stronger enforcement is desired, much greater adherence is attained. Conversely, when a blind eye is turned, more corners are cut.

But what makes management crack down on safety issues? What makes them lax? Generally, the company is stricter when it is more concerned with how safety issues would be perceived by outside observers. A contractor will not gain many contracts if they have a history of spills and fires. Pressure from regulators (the dreaded OSHA inspection) also promotes safety as a priority. Safety becomes lax when it is results that the outsiders are more concerned about: the share-holders don’t want to hear about a runaway reaction, but they mostly want to hear about the bottom line, the contracts completed, the projects success.

And so the safety chain builds up. Safety comes from the top down. If the management doesn’t care to push safety issues (or just gives lip service) then the rank and file will cut the corners they can.

Quenching Phosphorus Oxychloride

A comment on my post on phosphorus oxychoride (which I still get hits on even now) from Andy Nation asked if there was any Org Syn prep or other respected documentation on the work-up or quench of this reagent.

The first source I thought of was the MSDS but it doesn’t really talk about quenching, just the hazards. And it is so vague that it is hardly useful for this point.

Secondly, I thought of Bretherick’s Handbook of Reactive Chemical Hazards.

Then I did a quick search and turned up a paper in Organic Process & Development which might tell you more than you want to know.

Any others out there?

Dismantling a Meth Lab

NPR’s Morning Edition is running a series of stories on meth labs this week. Yesterday they talked about curtailing meth production in Oregon by restricting the sales of cough medicine. This morning was about the issue of dismantling a meth lab once you have closed it down, this specifically in Tennessee.

Some interesting safety issues to contend with. The man interviewed mentioned that “phosphine gas will kill you” – or at least that was what the transcript said he said. I heard it as “phosgene”, which will also kill you. I’m not up on the production of meth enough to tell you which is the right one. Either way, there are some dangerous chemicals involved here and I would be willing to bet that a full SOP with rigorous safety protocols (including labeling and waste disposal) have not been implemented by the crooks.

I’ve moved into labs where I find something that I didn’t know what it was. Disposal is a dangerous business. You may have only a vague notion of what the chemical is that you are disposing of. The story had someone talking about using pH paper to help with that identification and that will certainly point out which of the clear liquids is strong base or strong acid. Not everything is so clear cut.

One of the pieces of advice we used to get when ordering was order as much as you need even if the next size bottle is much cheaper per gram – the eventual disposal of that bottle more than overwhelms the saving you just made. This is not easy work and good luck to those that do it.

Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse

The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta recently posted a blog post giving sage advice on what you should do in the event of a zombie attack. Primarily it is a list of the things you should include in an emergency supply kit, planning meeting points and evacuation routes. Oddly these are similar to the kind of things you should do in the event of other natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes or even an epidemic.

So why did the CDC make their post about zombies? Well, because it got attention. (It also enabled me to answer the relevant question on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me this past weekend). If a few people read that post because of the title and retained some of the information in it, enough to perhaps make a preparedness kit or a list of emergency contact numbers, then it is a few more people that will be better off if something bad really does happen.

This lesson applies in chemical safety presentations as well. I have been in more than a few safety talks that, well, put me in a zombie-like state. If the speaker is able to engage his audience a little then it will be a bit less painful for everyone. Using the ridiculous but funny situation above, what would your lab do if there was a plague of zombies outside? I suspect it will be very much like the shelter in place protocols we have drawn up for tornado sightings. Using the fantastic or humorous versions of the situations you are discussing makes people pay more attention.

You don’t have to use zombies. Funny pictures on the slides (often depicting the WRONG way to do things) give the audience a laugh and make the point. Actually doing a stand-up routine is more than likely going a bit too far, but the odd joke is OK.

Audience participation is another approach. A contest or questions directed to the audience, with possible prizes at stake. Something getting the competitive juices flowing means less people looking out the window and zoning out. But it doesn’t have to be a competition, questions asked will usually get replies and if the subject is suitable you can get everyone following along – we had a safety meeting on stress one time in which we scored ourselves for how stressful our lives were.

It is not easy to present what can be very dull topics like proper waste management without losing the interest of the very people you need to inform. But it is worth a little time and thought spent on how to make it a little less tortuous for everyone.

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.