It is always the chemists.

Mar 01 2013 Published by under FWDAOTI, Tribe of Science

Every year we get an annual safety meeting from our EH&S department and they show us a bunch of instructional slides on how to handle various laboratory hazards around the campus. They always include a few chuckles, like the guy operating plugged-in powertools standing on a ladder immersed in a pool, the guy Lincoln welding the gas tank of a truck propped up on a couple of bricks..that sort of thing.

And of course we go down the list of hazards from the chemical to the radiological to the microbiological. My department is usually in full eyeroll mode most of the time because of a simple fact. You know what never happens on our campus (touch wood)? We never have a Ebola infected African green monkey head for the hills. Nary a hantavirus rodent plague. Maybe someone gets a little sloppy with some low grade radioactive material now and again but that's rare. We don't have people getting infected with various nasty viruses and virulent (hmm) strains of bacteria they work with.

But you know what does happen on our campus? Regularly? Like 2-3 times a year?

Some chemist blows up a hood, erupts a waste bottle, causes a fire in the lab bays or otherwise renders a building uninhabitable. In dramatic fashion.

Causing the Fire Department to have to respond and anyone working in the building to lose at least a day.

It is always the chemists.

I have never really understood why.

23 responses so far

  • Dr. Zeek says:

    Because the only reason one* becomes a chemist is so one can justifiably blow things up. Besides, explosions are much cooler than, say, liquified organ goo oozing from every orifice.

    *not that I would personally know. I became a chemist for the fame, the glory, the...nope, I did for the explosions.

  • antistokes (allison l. stelling) says:

    Because BOOM!

    Heh, sorry, no but yeah this is a really serious issue. I always tell my students that Rule #1 = No Dying in The Lab, Rule #2 = No )*(#@-ing Breaking Anything, and Rule #3 = No Dying in The Lab. The ACS released a notice a few months ago about lab safety, since industry was getting kids that had no clue what the proper procedures were due to lack of training.....

  • Spiny Norman says:

    Because, as Marvin the Martian said, there is supposed to be an Earth-shattering KABOOM.

  • whimple says:

    I heard somewhere (so it must be true) that the #1 cause of injuries in the lab was due to people falling down, usually in connection with using a wheely swivel chair as a ladder.

  • Anon says:

    It sounds like your chemists are extremely sloppy! I've been working in academic chemistry labs for almost 20 years now and can think of two serious incidents that occurred in the departments I was in at the time. Both involved a researcher spilling a strong acid and falling into it. Of course, over that time, I've heard reports of numerous incidents in various chemistry departments across the country...

    I wonder if the seeming discrepancy is due to the visibility of the potential accidents. People in your lab could mishandle a LOT of radioactivity without it being noticed, or someone could not notice that the nasty infection they have is due to the bacteria or virus they work with. But if someone in my lab makes a similar mistake, like pouring something down the sink or mishandling air-sensitive materials, BOOM!

    And whimple, I fully believe your statistics on lab injuries, providing corroboration and further evidence that it must be true.

  • Acme Rocket says:

    I treat my chemicals like I treat my guns. Never had a problem. During my days in graduate school there were a few fires, spills, and injuries. No explosions, but I think that's mainly because no one did energetic materials research in that lab. I say, when in doubt, add slow, add cold.

    One time I remember quenching a lithium aluminum hydride reduction too quickly and coating the inside of my chemical fume hood with metal salts. Actually, most if not all of the accidents I've heard about occur during the quench phases of a reaction.

    If you don't understand why us chemists are constantly burning things down, cutting ourselves with glass shards, and ducking shrapnel, then that's probably why you're not a chemist.*

    *Yes, I know not every chemist mixes chemicals together. But what fun is that?

  • antistokes (allison l. stelling) says:

    As a chemist who has been in both hardcore synth labs and operating rooms for neurosurgery patients, I'd also like to point out that there's a huge difference in training that occurs between lab scientists and medical doctors. Good chemists are taught how not to explode stuff--- or if they are exploding stuff, how to do if safely. Good surgeons are- with very good reason- taught how to not kill the patient.

    In medicine, the safety focus is always on the patient. You wear masks in the OR to protect yourself from anything the patient might have, and the entire team is focused on not letting this particular individual die while they are undergoing surgery.

    Whereas in a synth lab or a laser lab, the focus is on not blowing anything up! You don't "look the laser in the eye", or you don't mix such and such compound together too rapidly. The focus is on the experimenter, not some other individual. MDs (and apparently some chem departments) need to remember that labs are dangerous places--- I had to scold a very well trained older, mid-career neurosurgeon for eating in the lab! (Well, I just gave him a dirty look and he got the message; he's a very clever man.)

  • One of my closest friends was a chemistry major and did a summer internship at a chemical company. He totally blew up a fucken hood and the fire and explosion nearly took out the entire research complex. Accordingly, he decided to become a patent attorney.

  • becca says:

    Actual answer according to my Aunt? Chemical safety guidelines were mostly codified decades before radiation rules, and biosafety rules came even later. Humans got less risk-tolerant in their assessments of acceptable workplace hazards as time went on. Thus, biosafety is the most paranoid, then radiation, and chem safety is the most lax. There would be much less chemistry done if we required chemists to work as safely as biologists.

  • It's the exothermic reactions, yo! And occasionally the seething rage ...

  • antistokes (allison l. stelling) says:

    Becca, not all chem labs are "lax". Esp. the ones that undergo routine federal level health and safety checkups (as my grad lab in NY did regularly since it had federal funding and o yeah you betcha they do check up and fine you on these sorts of things).

    However, some are "lax". And that is simply despicable, and risks the lives of students.

  • becca says:

    antistokes- for clarification, my Aunt's job is to be one of the people involved in routine federally inspected nuclear waste disposal. I don't mean to imply there aren't safe chemists, or sloppy biologists using radiation (of which I have observed plenty), though I admit I do hope there aren't many sloppy nuclear scientists. What I was trying to get at is more like, *if one follows all necessary legal requirements and is inspected regularly* (i.e. if ur doin it rite), I think the level of risk deemed acceptable to chemical workers is greater than the level of risk deemed acceptable to radiation workers. Radiation safety rules are, frankly, paranoid compared to most safety rules. Part of that is the emotion many people in our society have associated with radiation (and, having lived within spitting distance of three mile island, I am not claiming to be 100% rational on this front either- I'm honestly *glad* our society is paranoid about this), and part of it is that those rules did get written in a more safety-conscious microculture than chemical safety rules.

  • antistokes (allison l. stelling) says:

    Cool, becca, maybe I've met your Aunt :). My grandpa used to work for the federal nuclear program-- he actually wrote the health and safety manual that was used at the time. You're right, a lot of people really over-react about radiation safety then blithely ignore other dangers. A lot of organic synth labs are quite a bit more dangerous than a nuclear reactor! Paranoia is all very well and good, but it should be applied to all dangerous scientific work. I suspect part of this has to do with how scientists were trained back in the 70s and 80s. There was very little crossover in the labs people took back then and people just didn't get as much training in labs outside their disciplines. And since everybody's hot for interdisciplinary science right now, it feels like some unis are pushing kids into labs without considering that maybe the health and safety training varies quite a bit depending on the lab work.

    A couple summers ago when I was training students I was freaking out about the optics dudes sneezing on someone's thesis in the tissue culture lab, and the biologists accidentally touching a mirror in a laser setup. I've worked in all kinds of labs-- synth labs, a nuclear reactor, microbiology labs, laser labs, NMR/mass spec labs-- so the safety stuff is ingrained for me. But my students hadn't gotten that level of training (I wound up reverting to lab TA mode and going on huge safety rants at them).

  • Spiny Norman says:

    "It's the exothermic reactions, yo! And occasionally the seething rage ..."

    Oh, some of the endothermic reactions can detonate real good, Janet.

  • The endothermic reactions are kind of like the quiet loner guys that no one expects to snap.

  • Causing the Fire Department to have to respond and anyone working in the building to lose at least a day.

    Or, you know, more than one day. (sigh)

  • NEUROHULK says:


  • The Iron Chemist says:

    I'm surprised no one's mentioned the Harran situation yet. I'd agree that many of the chemical safety standards remain non-federally-codified.

  • antistokes (allison l. stelling) says:

    The Harran situation is kinda what I'm referring to, personally. I mean that's just....a horrific abuse of student labor. I had to go though serious lab lectures where they showed pictures of a lab accident at the school (an explosion in a snyth lab) and very forceful safety vids before I was even allowed to step foot in a lab. The fact that some professors at some unis seem to think it's not worth their time to teach their students proper safety procedures is a sign of how de-regulated some USA unis have become. It's highly unprofessional, and highlights how much more unis value profs spending time writing grants to get the cashmoney over this strange thing called "teaching their students how not to die in the lab".

  • Cavein says:

    Chemists need to make and break bonds, which generally requires a lot of energy to be stored up in bonds. They thus, necessarily, use very reactive (i.e., explosive, pyrophoric, corrosive) materials. Biologists, and even Biochemists, not so much.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Who do you want on your side when they come for your grant?

  • It's just so easy to blow up a hood. And it's much more difficult to release plague ridden rats.

  • Many thanks for writing this helpful publish..Cherished your articles or blog posts. You should do maintain writing

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