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Lab Safety

Lab Safety And The UCLA Accident

October 29, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 44

Per Warren L. Dowler’s search for a safer syringe (C&EN, Sept. 17, page 2), I sent the following letter on Sept. 24 to the Office of New Product Suggestions of BD (Becton Dickinson), Research Triangle Park, N.C.:

“You already own the rights to a simple device that could prevent injuries and save lives in the lab.

“In a UCLA chemistry laboratory on 29 December 2008, Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji, a 23-year-old chemistry research assistant, was transferring tert-butyllithium via syringe when she pulled the plunger completely out of the barrel. tert-Butyllithium is pyrophoric—ignites spontaneously upon exposure to air—and the ensuing fire ignited her clothing. She suffered terrible burns and died 18 days later. This incident has received extensive coverage in Chemical & Engineering News as well as in local publications such as the Los Angeles Times.

“A researcher states in a letter printed in the 17 September 2012 C&EN(page 2) that a simple locking device would prevent accidents of this sort, but that he has failed to find any such device on the market. I thought that for sure there must be some sort of clip-on adapter that would work; I searched for one among U.S. patents and found it in U.S. Patent No. 5,803,918, assigned to you. Its title is ‘Syringe for Medicinal Purposes,’ so I think it’s quite possible the inventors and others in their area of research at your company didn’t realize its applicability to laboratory safety.

“I envision that these adapters could be disposable, like the PP/PE syringes they could clip on to, and cost pennies each. If you or another company already makes these, please let me and the research community know. If not, please make them, or license or give away the rights to other companies or the public domain.”

Howard J. Wilk

Whether or not a professor should face criminal charges in the wake of the laboratory accident at the University of California, Los Angeles, is a fair question and one that will ultimately be adjudicated in the courts. My personal opinion is that a real threat of individual consequences may be necessary to drive home the message that the effectiveness of an institution’s safety program requires the total commitment of each and every faculty, staff, and student member.

My first encounter with laboratory safety came when I was an undergraduate student in the late 1950s. We were told about the risk of being cut by broken glass when inserting a glass rod through a rubber stopper, the operation of eye fountains and overhead emergency showers was explained, and we were warned to take care when words such as “flammable” or “corrosive” appear on a label. Finding those words was not difficult, because safety warnings were never longer than a few words. Laboratory safety instruction in graduate school went little further during the early 1960s, when we handled substances such as asbestos, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, and formaldehyde with reckless abandon.

My real awareness came when I was hired as a summer intern by a large Delaware-based chemical company. We interns were forbidden to enter our laboratory work area until we had completed a safety training program led by qualified instructors. During my subsequent career with a major petrochemical company, emphasis on safety in laboratory, manufacturing, and office facilities was ongoing, with constant reinforcement that each and every worker shared in the responsibility. People did find old and new ways of getting into trouble, and infrequent accidents did occur. However, every incident was fully documented, investigated, and treated as an opportunity for further improvement.

I have followed with interest the reporting on accidents that have occurred in recent years at UCLA, Texas Tech, and elsewhere. On the positive side, I’m convinced that the academic world takes safety more seriously than it did a half-century ago. However, I’m left with the uneasy impression that safety in campus labs has not yet risen to the level of primary focus and serious commitment that it receives from leading-edge companies in the chemical industry. The stakes are indeed very high.

William J. Curnow
Port Charlotte, Fla.


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