08/01/2014 07:51 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2014

Nine Steps Closer to Safe Science

Most of us will never handle a potentially lethal chemical. But across the U.S. scientists experiment with sensitive and dangerous chemicals every day while conducting important research. Sometimes those experiments turn deadly.

A new study released July 31 by the National Research Council may help prevent future accidents by challenging current safety standards in academic and nonindustrial labs across the U.S. with nine recommendations aimed at the higher-education and scientific community.

The study, while not prompted by any single lab accident, follows a series of horrific accidents over the past two decades.

In 1996 Karen Wetterhahn, a chemistry professor at Dartmouth College specializing in metal toxicology, died after her fume hood and disposal latex gloves failed to protect her from exposure to dimethylmercury that she was transferring between containers. She was 48.

In 2010, 29 year-old Preston Brown, a graduate student at Texas Tech, was working with 10 grams of nickel hydrazine perchlorate when the complex exploded in his hands. Brown lost three fingers on his left hand and received burns and eye injuries. He had received no formal training for working with such compounds. Texas Tech reported, "The student was working with energetic materials in greater quantities than was prudent. He also was working outside of a hood and without a blast shield and personal protective wear."

The following year Yale undergraduate Michelle Dufault was strangled to death when her hair got caught in a lathe in the university's Sterling Chemistry Laboratory's machine shop. Students found her body. An OSHA investigation determined that the lathe lacked a physical safeguard and that Yale University had fallen short on safety protocols.

Perhaps the most publicized case of a chemistry-lab accident is that of 23-year-old Sheri Sangji, a research associate who caught on fire while working at an organic-chemistry lab inside the UCLA Molecular Sciences Building Dec. 29, 2008.

According to The Los Angeles Times, Sangji was using a plastic syringe to transfer less than two ounces of tert-Butyllithium from a sealed container to another. The syringe's plunger pulled out of the barrel, causing the chemical compound to ignite upon being exposed to the air. Sangji's sweater, made of synthetic fibers, caught fire, causing second- and third-degree burns over approximately 43 percent of her body. She died Jan. 16, 2009.

The investigation found that Sangji had not been wearing a protective lab coat, nor had she been properly trained.

"I don't believe she received generalized lab safety training," stated UCLA professor Patrick Harran in his 2009 deposition by Cal/OSHA. He added that the lab did not provide fire-resistant clothing for those handling tert-Butyllithium.

The study, "Safe Science: Promoting a Culture of Safety in Academic Chemical Research," was conducted by the National Research Council's Board on Chemical Science and Technology and Board on Human-System Integration. It provides nine safety recommendations that its authors hope will result in an improved culture of safety in chemistry labs across the country.

It's not that institutions don't have safety regulations in place, but continued injuries and fatal accidents demanded more specific and ubiquitous recommendations.

The nine recommendations (summarized) are:

  1. Institutional leaders must actively demonstrate that safety is a core value of the institution and show an ongoing commitment to it.
  2. The provost or chief academic officer, in collaboration with faculty governance, should incorporate fostering a strong, positive safety culture as a criterion for promotion, tenure, and salary decisions for faculty.
  3. Within the constraints of limited resources, research heads and departmental chairs should consider the resources they have available for safety when considering or designing programs, and identify types of research that can be done safely with available and projected resources and infrastructure.
  4. University presidents and chancellors should establish policy and deploy resources to maximize a strong, positive safety culture, including a comprehensive risk-management plan for laboratory safety that address prevention, mitigation, and emergency response.
  5. Department chairs and principal investigators should make greater use of teams, groups, and other engagement strategies.
  6. Department chairs should provide a mechanism for creating robust safety collaboration between researchers, principal investigators, and environmental-health and safety personnel.
  7. Organizations should incorporate non-punitive incident and near-miss reporting as part of their safety cultures.
  8. The researchers and principal investigators should incorporate hazard analysis into laboratory notebooks prior to experiments.
  9. Department leaders and principal investigators, in partnership with environmental-health and safety personnel, should develop periodic refresher training.

I spoke with three of the study's committee members:

  • H. Holden Thorp, provost and distinguished professor of chemistry and medicine at Washington University in St. Louis
  • David DeJoy, professor emeritus of health promotion and behavior and director emeritus of the Workplace Health Group at the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia
  • Douglas Friedman, senior program officer with the Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology at the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences

"We're advocating for a move beyond the regulations that are compliance-oriented to a more holistic approach where everybody from top to bottom in the organization is brought into the idea of safety," said Dr. Thorp, chair of the study.

How does one change a culture embedded in labs nationwide? The answers, says the study's authors, are not rooted in any complicated formula but begin with good old-fashioned conversation.

"We need people to be talking about potential chemical hazards frequently so people working in the labs are reminded," explains Thorp. "We advocate that the chancellor, provost, deans, department chairs, department of health and safety officials -- all of them need to work together. It won't happen with any one piece of that."

The implementation of the study's recommendations challenges the very essence of modern scientists, many of whom, the experts say, gain stature by working long hours and late into the night. The problem is that these rites of passage can cause fatigue and unintended dismissal of safety precautions -- if they even sufficiently exist.

And perhaps a basic question is why lab researchers aren't entering the lab realizing that they are dealing with potentially lethal chemicals and taking proper precautions.

"Accidents are relatively rare, but young people come into the laboratory and they don't know what they don't know ... and it's a formula for trouble," says DeJoy, vice-chair of the study.

The study committee comprised a wide variety of players: renowned chemistry professors, young faculty who are just starting their labs, and organizational-behavior experts who have studied protocols in other industries (aviation, manufacturing, health care, the nuclear industry, and the military).

Study director Douglas Friedman says the committee met four times over the course of about a year to discuss gathered data from this varied well of sources.

A key element of changing lab culture rests with the scientists themselves. The study contends that group dynamics and collaboration with environmental-health and safety personnel are critical to ensuring lab safety.

"A lot of times, people tend to view the environmental-health and safety folks as impediments, and they desperately need to view them as collaborators," said Thorp.

And lab researchers need to feel safe when reporting "near-misses" in the lab.
Thorp says that often researchers hesitate to rock the boat for fear of punitive actions.

"We want to create a culture where people feel free to talk about the hazards they're dealing with and talk with each other," said Thorp. "Raising the fact that there are hazards should be something people are not afraid to do."

Many people may think chemistry labs inside schools or universities are subject to traditional and adequate safety measures. Chemistry labs are also workplaces, and the study indicates that chemistry labs must follow the same standards as any workplace, especially when dealing with potentially fatal substances.

As for the Sangji case, Professor Harran became the first professor in the United States to be criminally charged in connection with a workplace death of an employee. The study's authors had no comment on the Harran case.

Harran faces four felony codes of violating the state labor code, crimes that dictate a possible four and half years in prison. After years of legal maneuvering and delays, both sides agreed last month to a "deferred prosecution."

Defense attorney Thomas O'Brien would not elaborate on why his client accepted this deal. Mr. Harran must abide by the terms of a settlement between the University of California Regents and Cal/OSHA, the state's occupational safety agency; pay a $10,000 fine; and perform multiple forms of community service.

In a written statement to the court last month, Naveen Sangji, the victim's sister, expressed her family's disappointment and distaste for the deferred prosecution, saying that "this settlement, like the previous one with UCLA, is barely a slap on the wrist for the responsible individual."

In July 2012 UC Regents agreed to accept responsibility for "the conditions under which the laboratory operated," paid a $32,000 fine, promised to implement comprehensive lab-safety measures, and created a $500,000 endowment in Sheri Sangji's name.

None of the study's committee members spoke with any family members of lab-accident victims, but Dr. Thorp believes the integrity and pedigree of the committee members within the chemistry field will go far to implement the committee's recommendations at university and national research labs. He also hopes the improvements will eventually migrate to high-school laboratories.

According to Dr. Thorp, chemistry-lab safety has improved since he was a graduate student 30 years ago. He says that there are more fume hoods and more discipline around storing solvents, people are doing a better job of managing temporal gases, and there is better use of personal protective systems.

"I feel very hopeful because there is a growing trend amongst young scientists to improve safety. They and the older faculty at the highest level of chemical research were unanimous. When you put all of those things together, there is every reason to be optimistic."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misspelled Sheri Sangji's surname. The post has been updated. We regret the error.