Research science is full of hazards. Chemists and safety professionals do their best to minimize the danger, but accidents do happen and the stakes can be extremely high. So how can chemists ensure that when things do go wrong—or when they nearly go wrong—that we learn from those experiences to work toward a safer future? Communication is key. In this episode of Stereo Chemistry, we talk with four chemists who have survived accidents and shared their stories so others can learn from them.
The following is the script for the podcast. We have edited the interviews within for length and clarity.
Matt Davenport: Hey everyone. This week’s episode discusses lab accidents and includes some graphic descriptions. If that’s not something you want to hear, you might want to skip this one. Just be sure to tune back in in a couple weeks for part 2 of our lab safety discussions, which will focus on safety culture rather than the details of accidents. Thanks a lot.
Mary Beth Koza: When I was an undergraduate, the way I met my husband, my girlfriends and I set the organic lab on fire. And he calmly stuck his hand through the fire and put it out.
Matt: That’s Mary Beth Koza, who is now the executive director for environmental health and safety and risk assessment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Mary Beth Koza: So I’m in safety, and I’m probably the most unsafe lab person there is. I always laugh about that.
Matt: Don’t let her fool you, though. Mary Beth has a ton of experience with safety.
She started her career as a chemist at a pharmaceutical pilot plant in 1980. Around the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency released new guidelines for managing hazardous waste.
Mary Beth Koza: And the plant manager one day looks at me and he says, “You’ve got an undergraduate in chemistry. We’ve got these new rules about waste. Here. Read them. Figure it out.”
Matt: So that was Mary Beth’s introduction to professional chemical hygiene and safety. And over the next 25 years Mary Beth became the director of environmental health and safety for all of Bristol-Meyers Squibb’s research facilities in New Jersey.
In 2008, Mary Beth decided she was ready for a new set of challenges and joined UNC.
Mary Beth Koza: At a university, you are always dealing with the smartest of the smart. And scientists, they’re not cutting edge because they’re conservative. They’re cutting edge because they take risks.What happens when you take risks? Accidents can occur.
Everyone tries to do their best. Folks struggle with admitting something went wrong. So sharing lessons learned is really overcoming your perfectionism.
Matt: In this episode of Stereo Chemistry, we’ve got stories from four chemists who have pushed past that perfectionism to share the lessons they learned about safety. And the goal of that is to make doing science safer.
Take Mary Beth. She wants researchers at UNC to talk with her about safety, including the missteps, the near misses, the teachable moments, so that the campus community can learn from them. And what better way to do that than by sharing her own experience of starting a fire in her undergraduate o-chem lab?
Matt (in interview): How did you set it on fire?
Mary Beth Koza: Because in organic chem many years ago, you had Bunsen burners and then you would have a water bath and you put your flammable liquid in and it would bubble over. And a lot of times when it bubbled over because it was an open flame Bunsen burner everything would catch on fire. And we weren’t doing micro scale labs like we do nowadays. You know, we were using larger quantities and things of that nature.
Matt: So this is neither here nor there, but did your now-husband, right?
Mary Beth Koza: Mmhmm.
Matt: Was his method of extinguishing the flame. . . Reaching through the flame seems kind of dangerous. Would you have, would you have advised him of a different way to do that now?
Mary Beth Koza: Of course. We would have said, “You’re crazy! What are you doing?” But he understood what he was doing. He stuck his hand through the flame and shut off the source of the ignition.
Matt (in studio): I met Mary Beth because she presented at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society last year in New Orleans. And, full disclosure, the American Chemical Society publishes C&EN, which makes this podcast.
Mary Beth talked during a session in New Orleans called “Learning Laboratory Safety through Storytelling.” I missed that session, but I got the chance now to follow up with her about the reasons for using storytelling in teaching safety.
Mary Beth Koza: If I go tell you a safety rule once, the odds of you remembering that are not going to be good.
Matt (in interview): So that’s a really interesting thought because I definitely agree you need to hear a rule or something multiple times before it sticks. However, I feel like I’m going to remember that story about you setting your organic lab on fire right after hearing it once and, I don’t know, this might be venturing too far into philosophy, but what’s the difference? Like why do those stories connect, and why do they last?
Mary Beth Koza: OK. So I think that it talks about how we feel and how we behave. And when I told you that story, I was pretty descriptive. I’m sure in your mind you could picture a teaching lab environment. And the lab bench, right? And we were on one side and he stuck his hand through a flame. You could visualize all that.
Matt: In other words, it was real. And that’s the goal of this episode. To get real about safety.
Actually, it’s the goal of the next two episodes. That’s right. We’re doing our very first two-part edition of Stereo Chemistry. And we’ll be sharing part 2 in a couple weeks, which will look at the big picture of lab safety, how far it’s come, where it’s headed, and we’ll talk about some of the challenges of improving lab safety culture.
This week, though, we’re going to dive into a few life-changing stories about accidents. There’s a good chance you’ve heard one or more of these stories already. So we don’t want you to think this is an exclusive. Heck, there was a session at an ACS national meeting about this, you may recall.
What we’re hoping to do is to provide a platform for these stories and the lessons learned to reach more people. And we’re hoping they might inspire some folks to be more open to discussing safety in their own groups.
I’m Matt Davenport and I have absolutely no business doing this episode without C&EN’s safety guru, Jyllian Kemsley. Whenever we have a question about lab safety, we go to Jyllian. She helps us with approving photos and videos to make sure that we’re showing best practices. And, on top of that, she’s been covering safety for C&EN and our Safety Zone blog for over a decade.
Jyllian Kemsley: Matt.
Matt:Laughs. I don’t know why I stopped. I’m sorry. So, how did you become our safety guru? Was that a decision that you made?
Jyllian: No. It just sort of evolved that way. One of the very first stories I did was about how to safely synthesize explosives. So I think it’s fair to say I had some sort of interest in safety but had no intention of trying to make a beat out of it or anything. And then the fire at UCLA occurred where Sheri Sangji was badly burned and then later died. I was the one who happened to pick up that story. I think I saw an early brief from the Associated Press about fire, chemistry department, someone burned, and started following up on that, contacting the department trying to figure out what happened.
And then she died and I think, I hope, that was something of a watershed moment for people because it’s really hard to imagine what could be so important about whatever an academic research lab is doing that it cost someone their life.
So it was reporting on that story and then I started to get into safety stuff a little bit after that and then there was the explosion at Texas Tech and things just kept going from there.
Matt: And so obviously when there is serious injury or loss of life, that’s something you write about for C&EN in the magazine. But one of the things I’ve appreciated about the Safety Zone blog is one of the things you can do with the blog is share stories that people can learn from where the story doesn’t end in tragedy. In the business, we would probably refer to those as close calls or near misses. To what degree do you need to look for those stories or do they come to you?
Jyllian: People will ping me when they’ve got something that they think would be worth getting more information on or sharing with the community more broadly. One of the things that I’ve definitely learned over the years is that the initial news reports for any incident are quite often wrong or at a minimum, there’s not as much detail as chemists want to know particularly if they’re thinking about could this happen to me? Or how could I prevent this from happening to me?
The issue of near misses, or some people like to call them good catches, those are harder to track because they don’t often come to anyone’s attention, really. And I think that’s that’s a place where the chemistry community could definitely I think consider how best might we share this information. Not about pointing fingers at people, but really more, “What can we learn from this?” How can we keep it from happening again either in this lab or in another lab or in another school or wherever?
Matt: So in this podcast, we’re gonna hear personal stories of lab accidents. We’ve learned that personal stories can be powerful in terms of helping lab safety culture evolve. What should we be thinking about sharing these stories so it doesn’t just become finger pointing?
Jyllian: That’s the really hard part about reporting on safety stuff and writing about lab safety is we really try to stay focused on what would be useful to the community that we serve. What what can they learn from it?
I think talking about the person does make it more real. It humanizes it. Similarly to when someone might be writing about a particular disease or how a virus affects someone. It humanizes it. It makes it more relatable.
So that can be a good thing, but I do think you have to also try to put stories in that broader context of it wasn’t just that this compound exploded, it’s the broader situation of why were they doing that experiment? Did they do it all correct? Did they do it incorrectly? Should they have used different equipment?
It can be really easy to point fingers and I think that’s really hard particularly with something like the Texas Tech incident, where he was working at a Department of Homeland Security project that involved synthesizing explosives and he made 10 g and took 5 g of that and ground it in a mortar and pestle and it exploded in his hands. It’s super easy for people to say he was just stupid.
What I tried to do in reporting on that story was to back out from that moment and try to get at some of the broader things about how did he wind up grinding 5 g of explosive in the middle of a lab. I mean, other people could have easily been hurt.
So things like supposedly the lab had a rule where you didn’t make more than I forget exactly what it was 200, 250 mg of material. Clearly that wasn’t enforced. Other people in the lab knew he was scaling up and didn’t say anything even though, again, there was a clear risk to them. So like I said really trying to kind of back out of the specifics of the incident and try to look at sort of the broader situation or culture that allowed someone to get into that situation.
Matt: I just pulled up the Chemical Safety Board incident report to check our numbers real quick. According to the report, the project’s two principal investigators verbally established a 100 mg limit for the material, but few of the students actually believed a strict limit existed. The graduate student who was using the mortar and pestle, Preston Brown, was working with about 5 g of the material.
Now, getting back to C&EN’s coverage of safety, Jyllian, I know one of the other challenges is selecting which photos to use. I know our editors get together to figure that out and, although I haven’t been in on those conversations, I have heard about them. And I think the one incident I’ve heard the most about was at the University of Hawaii at Manoa about three years ago.
Jyllian: In the University of Hawaii incident the lab was using microorganisms to make fuels and raw materials, to make hydrocarbons. And they were doing that by feeding the microbes a mix of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide.
And if you think about your fire triangle, your hydrogen’s your fuel, your oxidizer is your oxygen. All you need is a spark and this is gonna blow up. And what happened in that incident they had changed from piping the different gases into the reactor to premixing them in a different container and then piping it in from there.
And it seems to have been a really small static spark, possibly one small enough that the researcher didn’t even feel it. It’s a little unclear why they made that change, some suggestion that they felt like they were wasting gases and this would be a way to reduce waste. But they reduced waste essentially by creating a bomb in the middle of the lab.
There were a lot of photos that we were able to get from the Honolulu Fire Department through a public records request. There was a lot of damage to the lab and some of the photos showed a fair amount of blood because Thea Ekins-Coward, she lost one of her arms from the explosion. And so we did have to make some choices about what photos do we want to show.
And there’s a line that we try to walk, where the photo can help you make clear the extent of the damage but also gory photos can turn off some readers and then it becomes a lost opportunity to help people understand what happened.
Matt: So that’s what we were thinking about when we were pulling these stories together for this episode. We wanted to share them authentically, without downplaying the damage. And at the same time, not focusing so much on that that we were taking away from the lesson learned or the safety point.
Thinking back to Mary Beth’s story, she pointed out that they were using more flammable liquid than was needed. We also talked about how her future-husband knew the right way to control that particular fire was by turning the gas line to the Bunsen burner off. But keep in mind he could have improved upon his execution by not reaching through the flame.
Our next story comes from Debbie Decker, who also has a gift for clearly identifying safety points. Debbie’s the safety manager for the chemistry department at the University of California, Davis. But she started her career as a chemist for a company called Explosive Technology. They made, you guessed it, explosives, especially for aerospace.
Debbie Decker: So yeah, I was a rocket scientist. I blew stuff up for a living. It was a cool job.
Matt: Between that and her career in safety, she’s seen a lot, she’s heard a lot, and learned a ton of lessons.
Debbie Decker: But yeah, it’s one of those things you start sitting around and having a cocktail kind of chitty chatting with your chemical safety colleagues whom you care about and whom you’ve worked with for years and years and years. And you kind of start telling war stories on each other. And then that’s kind of evolved into how we use those personal stories to make the safety point. Because I’ve been at this a long time and I have this wide network of folks who feel safe talking to me about this kind of stuff. And so how do you use those personal stories to make a safety point? A personal story will stick with people.
Matt (in interview): Is there an example of a story from your experience that you found has resonated well with people not just in sticking, with communicating that safety lesson?
Debbie Decker: So when I work in the explosives biz, we used to keep little containers of baking soda about the lab, to sort of put out a little fires and tidy up little spills. In the back of the fume hood was a 250 mL beaker that had about an inch of a white powder in the bottom of the beaker. It was unlabeled. I assumed it was baking soda. And so my lab mate, this is right around the Fourth of July, right around this time of year—we do this in the explosives business. He had developed a new pyrotechnic he wanted to show off. It was strontium peroxide, powdered aluminum, pink flame, pink smoke—which is hard to make—and silver sparks from the aluminum. And so he put it on a pad on a ring stand and set it off. “Ooohhooohhoooh, this is pretty.” And some of these silver sparks of the aluminum fell into this beaker in the back of the fume hood and the fume hood went away.
I have a little hearing loss in my right ear. My lab mate had a little hearing loss in his left ear. An inch and a quarter epoxy top was broken into four pieces. All the duct work up to the roof was destroyed. We had a drop ceiling so all those ceiling tiles were all over the place and the sheet metal superstructure of the fume hood had sheet metal shrapnel all around the lab. We could have been killed.
In the incident investigation, it was determined that it was not baking soda. It was lead azide that was used in the plant in booster cups and blasting caps. And how it ended up in an open beaker in the back of the fume hood, I to this day do not know. And so I use this story as an example of label your containers. Label everything, even water. Label everything.
Matt (in studio): So there’s your safety point, but we also wondered if, as a safety officer, Debbie had any pointers for making chemists more comfortable sharing their stories.
Debbie Decker: You know, that’s interesting. It’s creating a safe spot. It really is. It’s creating a safe place and that can take many forms.
For me, just as much as possible, to be open and willing to hear what folks have to say. Keeping your ears open.
I’ll give you an example of this. Saturday afternoon, I got a call from one of our researchers. I’m sorry. I beg your pardon. It was Friday. She smelled smoke in her laboratory and they had looked all around in the building. They heard some odd things in a room next door. It was just was not dissipating.
And so she and I talked for a while and I said, “You know what? Call the fire department.” We have an on campus fire department. Give them a call. She did call the fire department and they determined that it was some construction activities that were going on outside the building and that those smells had made their way into the building. She was very relieved about that and then felt a little silly because, “Oh, I just bothered the fire department. I bothered Debbie. It was nothing.” And I just assured her, if there is something weird going on in the building that you can’t explain, please. Please, please, please. I want you to call me. I want you to call the fire department. This is why I am here.
And so hopefully, just lather, rinse, repeat. Just keep repeating that, “Please don’t hesitate to call. Don’t hesitate to reach out.”
Matt: You’re going to hear more from Debbie and Mary Beth in our next episode, but right now, we’re going to take a quick break. We’ve got a couple more stories you don’t want to miss on the other side of this message, plus some additional insight into how we talk about safety at C&EN.
Arminda Downey-Mavromatis: Hey there, this is Arminda Downey-Mavromatis, C&EN’s social media intern! It’s that time of year again. We’re looking for companies to feature in our annual 10 Start-Ups to Watch cover story this fall, and we need your help!
We highlight innovative new companies using chemistry to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Like Checkerspot, which was just a fledgling when it was selected last year, and has since raised $13 million from investors to advance its process for getting specialty chemicals from algae. And Solugen, another member of the class of 2018, which went on to raise $46 million to advance its enzyme-reactor system for producing hydrogen peroxide and other chemicals from sugar.
Do you know a groundbreaking start-up that should make our list? Nominate them at cenm.ag/startupnom.
We’re looking for firms that demonstrate both innovative chemistry and the vision to use discoveries to answer today’s questions. Again, the link to the nomination form is cenm.ag/startupnom.
Matt: Jyllian, you and I were both scientists before becoming writers and I’m curious are there any incidents from your lab days that you still think about?
Jyllian: So one of the incidents that I think about was in graduate school. We had like a departmental liquid nitrogen filling station where we’d take our 100 L tanks and fill them with liquid nitrogen. And this was not in my group, but this was a different group where one of the people that did it would actually close the safety valves so that the pressure would go up and the tank would fill faster. But of course you also risk the pressure going up too high. And it could have at some point blown up. Nothing bad ever happened that I knew about. I never actually saw the person who did it. I only ever saw the tank and stayed well away until that tank was done. But I think back on it. Why didn’t I say anything to anyone? Part of it was that I just didn’t know who to say it to.
I’m sure there’s other stuff I could point to. I am absolutely not someone who should be put up on a pedestal for her good laboratory practice when I was working in the lab.
Matt: Yeah and I’m right with you there. When I think back, there are several things I can think of. Looking back, you’re like, “Oh, I’m kind of lucky that nothing ever happened.”
But the one that sticks out to me is I was working in the physics lab that did a fair amount of chemistry. And we had a positive pressure glove box that we had just installed and we filled it up with high-purity argon to keep oxygen and air moisture, or water vapor, out of the glove box, not because of anything was like pyrophoric but just because it would change the electrical conductivity of the ionic liquids that we were studying. And so we’d pressurize the glove box and we come back the next day and it would be at atmospheric pressure. So we had a leak and I had a friend in a lab that did a lot of vacuum work and they had a leak sniffer. And so the thing was calibrated to measure helium, we pressurized our glove box with helium, and he found the leak but he couldn’t pinpoint it. I think the leak was so small and the tube they used to measure leak was so big. So he asked for a smaller like nozzle and we found a glass pipette tip that we put over the rubber hose that was used to leak detection. And I still don’t know what happened but somehow that became pressurized. Instead of sucking in the air it was pushing it out and it just launched that glass pipette straight up in the air and neither of us were wearing eye goggles. If our heads been maybe six inches closer, it could have been really,really bad. But fortunately nothing happened.
Jyllian: Eyewear is big. When it comes to mostly photos, but also as you know to some degree video, hands down the photos that we reject the most, it will be people who are clearly in a lab and not wearing eye protection. In some cases, they’re clearly in a lab, because you can see a fume hood or you can see a shelf of chemicals in the background, and they’re wearing a lab coat and they’re wearing gloves. And they’re not wearing eye protection. And if you’re that concerned about your clothing and your skin, you should be concerned about your eyes.
Matt: With that in mind, our next two stories are about wearing eye protection. The first one comes from Ian Tonks, a chemist at the University of Minnesota, who spends a lot of time thinking about safety. Ian and I were talking about some of the challenges he faces in an academic lab.
Ian Tonks: I think that one of the major challenges that we face in academics is that we have this inherent problem of inexperience that’s going to be constant throughout time. So we keep getting new students that are inexperienced, and I think what comes with that inexperience is kind of a sense of invincibility sometimes. And so figuring out ways to communicate the real challenges that we face in safety and the real risks associated with some procedures is difficult. You know, we don’t want everyone to have to have a near miss or an accident themselves before they realize how important safety is.
Matt (in interview): And so you’ve talked very openly about your accident that was as a postdoc, right, in was it 2012? 2013?
Ian Tonks: Yeah that’s right it was in 2012, right after I started my postdoc. Actually about two weeks in, so really good timing on that.
Matt: Can you walk me through what happened?
Ian Tonks: Yeah. So I was making a primary phosphine, pentafluorophenyl phosphine. And the way that you do this is you take the phosphine dichloride and you reduce it with lithium aluminum hydride to make the P-H bonds. And, as best we can tell, when you do this reaction with an excess of LAH like is reported, you run the risk of over-reducing the complex and making pentafluorophenyl allenes. And those are known detanants. And so I’d set up a distillation apparatus to work this thing up. I wasn’t even distilling it at the time and I came back into lab the next morning and I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I looked at it, and it exploded in my face. And so luckily I was wearing safety goggles. So my eyes were saved, but there’s still a lot of glass and blood that got scattered around to say the least.
Matt: How did you decide in the wake of what happened to be open about sharing it? What were your considerations about what to do next?
Ian Tonks: Yeah, that’s a really great question. So I don’t know if I actually put a lot of deep thought into being open about it, to be honest with you. It just seemed kind of the natural direction to go. You know, we’d been talking about things that happen in the lab for a long time and there were some incidents earlier on in grad school, near misses and stuff, where talking about them I think helped me become a better chemist. And so it just seemed like the natural thing to do that we should put something out there describing what had happened, and it was actually a little bit frustrating, actually. So we published a safety note in C&EN about this and after the fact we actually heard from a lot of other researchers. Like, “Oh, you know, I tried these procedures in the 1980s and yet every single time we did it it detonated on us, so we didn’t do it again.” And, in retrospect, that was very frustrating to me because if someone else had said something earlier, my accident or other accidents may not have happened. And I think that really reinforced why it’s such a good idea to be open about these things. I think that there is a little bit of shame associated with it to some extent. I hope that that perspective is changing. The reality is it happens to everybody. And I think that the more open I’ve been with people about this the more I realize that’s been the case. And so I think that by me being open especially in a position where I am now where I’m a professor that can be helpful for graduate students to see that there’s not a stigma associated with having an accident. These things happen.
Matt: Ian’s accident was just one of the reasons we were talking. We also wanted to learn more about The Safety Net, which is a website for sharing standard operating procedures, that Ian launched with his friend and colleague Alex Miller, who’s a synthetic chemist at UNC, Chapel Hill.
Alex and Ian will be back in our next episode when we talk more about the safety resources that are out there, but for now, we just wanted to share Alex’s reaction to Ian’s accident.
Alex Miller: Yeah, it was a shock. I remember Ian sent me a photo of the goggles, which still had a shard of glass sticking out of the lens. And that was that was pretty arresting. And then every year we get together and I’d see him pulling bits of glass that had been buried in his skin out as they slowly came to the surface. So it had a tremendous impact on me.
It’s pretty easy to talk to your group about wearing goggles when you can pull up a picture of a shard of glass sticking out of a goggle and say my bench mate, my desk neighbor in grad school can see because of these.
Ian Tonks: Yeah I still have the goggles on my desk at work and so that’s the first thing that people see when they join my group is wear your goggles even if you’re not doing chemistry you never know when you walk into a lab what can happen. So better safe than sorry.
Matt: This was a lesson that Nobel Laureate, Priestley Medalist, and click-chemistry innovator K. Barry Sharpless learned back in 1970. He, too, has been very open about sharing his story so that other people can learn from it. To close out this episode, you’re going to hear that story from the man himself.
K. Barry Sharpless: It was just a typical night for me. I worked nights often when I was writing proposals or papers. And it was three in the morning and I was getting ready to go home. So I put my parka on and had my briefcase and I called my wife. This shows you how weird schedules were, because it was Sunday morning and I called her I said I was going to be walking home.
I went down to my lab in Building 18, Dreyfus Building at MIT. It was on the first floor, and I found one of my students there, a really intense fella from the Bronx. And he was working in the hood and he had an NMR tube. He said, “I’ve almost got it sealed I think.” And he was sealing it the wrong way. An NMR tube has usually half an inch of liquid at most in it at the bottom. And this thing had about an inch and a half. And I thought, “That’s strange,” but I took it out of the dewar because it was in liquid nitrogen. And he was blowing nitrogen into it, but unfortunately lots of atmospheric oxygen was coming down too.
And so he condensed, about two thirds of that thing was liquid oxygen. That boils . . . well, it goes through the critical point, it just goes instantly to the vapor phase. Then, right in that moment, it actually just went down to the normal level, like a half an inch of solvent. And I said, “My god,” and I started to push the thing away.
Matt: But it was too late. All that liquid oxygen that condensed in the sealed NMR tube vaporized. The pressure inside shot up and the glass tube exploded. Barry wasn’t wearing his safety glasses.
K. Barry Sharpless: So the thing went right into my eye. And then everything started cascading after that. We actually called Whitesides, George Whitesides who was upstairs. So I said get George and then I said we should call my wife and tell her, “OK. Now I just had an accident, an explosion. I have to go to Mass Eye and Ear.”
And then she just ran out in the street there in Central Square with her bathrobe on and caught a police cruiser who was just hanging out at Central Square. They drove her to Mass Eye and Ear. She got there before I did.
They put us in a waiting room and I lay down my head on Jan’s lap and and waited for the doctors. The doctors, they’d had a terrible accident and the Mass Pike and had about six eye injuries with glass, flying glass, and so all the eye and ear people were tied up with that. So it wasn’t until after sunrise that a doctor came and he was a doctor for pediatric ophthalmology, Dr. Petersen.
And he put me in the operating room. And I had had a doughnut before I got into the accident. So he said, “I can’t put you to sleep.” They kept me awake, which wasn’t much fun. I just remember that I couldn’t see it myself, but they could see that the eye was deflating. The juice ran out of it. And then they would be talking about how they couldn’t, how they couldn’t find the pieces to tie together because it was a star laceration of the cornea and this glass had gone into the lens, so the lens had been nicked. The iris had had glass go through it and that caused a huge amount of extra light to come in, so it was very painful to be in bright sun without sunglasses.
Matt: Barry ended up losing sight in his left eye. It was a long recovery. He spent weeks in the hospital. Once Barry was released, he had to go back to Dr. Petersen’s office for months for follow-ups.
K. Barry Sharpless: And his was a pediatric office. And I had to get down on my knees and get myself into the small little chair so they could do the examination. And when I would try and make a reservation myself, the nurse that was in charge of that would say, “Well Barry, is your mother coming with you?” Laughs.
Matt: So Barry kept his sense of humor, but he did make some changes. For instance, reading became harder and he had to start taking frequent breaks from books and manuscripts. He also decided to stop riding motorcycles.
But he says the biggest change that came with losing his sight was what he started noticing.
K. Barry Sharpless: When I was young, I wouldn’t have noticed whether people had a ski helmet on, but the thing that I always noticed after the accident when I walked into anybody’s lab with somebody working without safety glasses. They were essentially looking naked suddenly to me. I could see it like it was a screaming message to me to do something about it. And now I tell my own people when I saw them that way they should just get out of the lab and then don’t come back until you get your safety glasses.
Matt: Barry says that his left eye came back online in the year 2000. By then, surgeons could repair enough of the damage to restore some of his sight. Not perfectly, but more than nothing. His story and Ian’s underscore how important eyewear is in lab safety. And it’s something we think about a lot at C&EN. We actually have a policy about it when it comes to showing people in labs.
Jyllian: So we did make a decision many years ago now actually that, for the most part, if we are showing photos of people in laboratories, they absolutely need to have eye protection on. We do make some exceptions. Sometimes it’s because they’re in a lab where a safety hazard and risk evaluation says that they don’t need to. You know, it’s an instrumentation lab, there’s no wet chemistry here or whatever. But we will verify that and include that information in the caption.
A couple other places where we made exceptions are photos from countries where they maybe just don’t have the resources. This was the case for a story about science in Cuba that Andrea Widener did a few years ago. And then also historical photos.
Matt: I know when I first started at C&EN, I would be reluctant if I saw someone not wearing glasses to say something about that just because it felt like I was interfering with the story. Or becoming part of the story, maybe not interfering, but you’re becoming part of it. And you’re taught not to do that as a journalist. How do you balance that consideration against the safety one?
Jyllian: It’s a good point and it is something that we discuss and rediscuss internally within C&EN. Because people will say, “Oh, we should be reporting things as they are, not as they should be.” Which, yes. That is true. At the same time, the vast majority of things that we are photographing or videoing are staged. I mean even when you, Matt, go into a lab to do video, I mean they’ve set it up to do this for you. It’s not like you’re a fly on the wall. So to some degree, we’re already inserting ourselves.
I think similar to showing more diversity in the visual media that we use at C&EN so that people from underrepresented minorities can see themselves in the photo or video or whatever it is, that that says a person like me can be a chemist. I think it’s kind of a similar thing where you’re showing best safety practice. I am a chemist therefore I wear eye protection when I set foot in a laboratory. That’s just what you do.
Matt: And in part 2 of our mini miniseries of safety, we’re going to take a closer look at those expectations and how they’re evolving, what resources are out there, as well as what members want from the American Chemical Society.
Matt (in interview): What can or should this massive scientific society do to help further these efforts?
Debbie Decker:More. More.
Jyllian: This week’s episode was written by me and Matt, who also produced the episode.
Matt: Our editors are Amanda Yarnell and Lauren Wolf. Our fabulous copy editor is Sabrina Ashwell.
Jyllian: Don’t forget to subscribe to Stereo Chemistry wherever you get your podcasts.
Matt: In this episode, you heard two tracks from the artist Meydän, including “Pure Water” and “Interplanetary Forest,” which is playing right now. We also used two tracks from Lee Rosevere around the middle of the episode called “We Don’t Know How it Ends,” and “Let That Sink In.” You also heard “Blue Lobster” by Daniel Birch.
Stereo Chemistry is the official podcast of Chemical & Engineering News, which is published by the American Chemical Society.
Jyllian: Thanks for listening.
“Blue Lobster” by Daniel Birch is licensed under CC BY 4.0.