Dangerous Work

I’m not going to be shaking anyone with revelations when I say that working with chemicals is a dangerous business. The list of warnings on the labels of some chemicals are enough to make one consider taking up something safer. Most of us have horror stories of spills or fires of some sort. Recently in the news there have been several chemical accidents – an accident at a Bayer plant, in which several people were treated for chemical exposure, the tragic death of a UCLA research assistant and another death due to TMS-diazomethane exposure.

And yet, I have not seen any data concluding that chemistry is a negative on your life expectancy nor have I contemplated abandoning a career in the field due to safety concerns.

It is certainly true that working in a research lab is much less dangerous than some vocations. The chemicals (no matter what you might think) are not actively out to get you, unlike enemy soldiers. And while that is also true of a fire fighter, they are clearly being brought into a situation that is getting out of control. When we walk into a lab full of toxins and flammables, we know what we are doing and we thus treat our day’s work with the proper respect. We use gloves, lab coats and fume hoods to keep us safe and away from the danger. Which, incidentally, why I was so shocked by the earlier mentioned TMS-diazomethane story, because the fellow was working with the chemical while the fume hoods were turned off due to maintenance. When hoods go down where I have worked, that is a cue for everyone in there to step away to their office or out of the building.

Accidents seem to happen not when things are going along as normal but when people are in a hurry. You didn’t have time to review this reaction before doing it because you have a deadline to meet. You have been shown how to do this reaction once, but the teacher is too busy to look after you again and now you are flying solo. You have the wrong piece of equipment and it will take too long to put it right. Under pressure like this, you make mistakes and poor decisions. These things go a lot smoother when you have the experience, the proper equipment and no looming need to be done and onto the next thing.

I have made and used diazomethane many times. I always did it using the proper diazomethane kit, with the smooth glass joints, everything properly chilled and behind a blast shield. For those who don’t know (and didn’t read the Wikipedia link), diazomethane is toxic and also known to explode under certain conditions. The first few times I did it, I took great great care over it. I never had any problem (which can occur mainly if you allow the diazomethane to concentrate – while it is in solution, there is little issue). At the time, I was using it regularly, we made it in relatively small batches (no more than the equipment would allow) and stored what we made in solution in the freezer. This is one reagent that my colleagues expressed a significant amount of fear over. But it is like any other dangerous substance we use in the laboratory: if you use it correctly, there will be no problem. Show confidence in yourself and your engineering controls without slipping into arrogance – in which you begin to neglect the safety measures and treat the chemical without all due respect, all because you’ve done it 10 times already and nothing bad ever happened.

Safety in the work place is an important issue, especially when the work place has so many things in it that can do you harm. Ironically, several of the incidents I can recall from my experience were not related to chemistry at all – tripping hazards and bumping heads on open cabinet doors (which is a specialty of mine, by the way). Something that could happen anywhere.

Be careful out there.


2 comments on “Dangerous Work

  1. The facts surrounding the TMS-diazomethane related death are less well publicized than those of the UCLA death. While both are tragic, both appear to have been preventable by following normal and reasonable chemical safety principals. The writer of this blog is correct in his risk assessments and statements regarding chemical safety.

    Remember, each of us is responsible for our own safety


    • David Perrey says:

      Thanks for the comment, Neal. So many of these accidents were, in hindsight, preventable. It is often when people feel pressure to get results that safety considerations get neglected.

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