Making our laboratories safer

Making our laboratories safer

In June, 2009, hydrogen gas leaked during an experiment and resulted in an explosion injuring four research scholars at the University of Missouri biochemistry research lab in Columbia

A few days ago I received a message in one of my WhatsApp groups from a researcher friend at Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, insisting us to be extremely cautious while performing experiments in our labs. Rightly so, the explosion, suspected to be caused by a leak in hydrogen cylinder in the Laboratory for Hypersonic and Shock Wave Research in IISc created shivers in the whole research community; it resulted in the instant death of one young engineer and injured three others, while also damaging the equipment in the laboratory. The accident is not unique of its kind, there have been many other accidents that have occurred in the laboratories of academic institutions. For example, in June, 2009, extremely inflammable hydrogen gas, having the potential of forming explosive mixtures with air, leaked during an experiment and resulted in an explosion injuring four research scholars at the University of Missouri biochemistry research lab in Columbia.

The extent and the severity of the damage caused by such accidents calls for an imperative need to take pro-active safety measures to enhance safety at the academic workplace. The need is further stressed upon by the fact that academic institutions are relatively less regulated by the government in terms of following safety protocols. The pro-active measures must begin from within and must start with creating extensive safety awareness among the individuals involved, by rigorously discussing the various accidents that have occurred in academia or in other related fields (to take home important safety lessons), and finally religious implementation of the same.

Awareness is the first line of defence. It is the precedent to any strategic change that we intend to bring, to make workspaces safer. Having an in-depth knowledge about the nature and risk associated with experiments and situations motivates us to be extra-careful while doing a particular task. For example, in June 2010, at the Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (SIUC), a student in chemistry lab was using hexane solvent to clean oil from the vacuum pump. He detected that a leak had occurred which caused the hexane to spread, and before he could clean it, the flammable vapor formed from it somehow got ignited resulting in huge fire and subsequently tremendous property losses. This accident provides an insight into how dangerous can flammable hazards be and establishes the need to be extra-careful while dealing with such chemicals. Awareness become a driving force for implementation and following of safety protocols and practices.

Absence of following the safety practices aggravates the situation. The death of a University of California, Los Angeles student because of an accident that occurred in December, 2008, establishes this fact. She (mis)handled a dangerous pyrophoric chemical which ignited immediately on contact with air, and to add to her woes, she knocked over an open flammable-solvent containing vessel, in panic, which also caught fire. The extent of the damage caused by fire could have been minimum, and a valuable life saved, had she been wearing a personal protective clothing recommended for dealing with pyrophoric chemicals or at least a flame-resistant lab coat. The accident investigation and previous lab inspection reports also revealed that the personal protective equipment were not fully utilized in that laboratory, and safety glasses, lab coats, nitrile gloves were also not worn by the laboratory personnel.

The root cause behind most of these accidents is an absence of good safety culture. Either there has been negligence on part of the students not following the safety protocols or the partial absence of strict and formal enforcement of safety protocols and appropriate training on part of the institutions involved. For example, the detonation accident in Texas Tech occurred because the researchers wanted to synthesise more amount of nickel hydrazine perchlorate derivative (explosive substance) than permitted 100 mg (claimed to be communicated verbally by the institution) at a time. It was later understood that the 100 mg constraint was never taken seriously. Had the same been communicated formally and in writing, the accident might have been prevented. The safety measures that were followed for synthesis within acceptable limits did not work for scale-up. Further, the researcher, apart from losing a few fingers, also damaged his eyes which could have been prevented had he worn the safety glasses.

Lessons to be learnt and solutions: The above-mentioned unfortunate accidents are just a few examples; many other accidents have occurred in the history of academic institutions e.g. Yale University accident, the accidental poisoning leading to the death of a professor at Dartmouth College, etc. All these accidents provide cues as to the necessity of developing and promoting a good safety culture within institutions. 

There should be biannual or quarterly seminars or events that make aware the personnel involved about the importance of safety. ‘What will you do in this situation?’, ‘What wrong could you do in this situation?’, etc. kind of events be promoted within the institutions to develop the safety calibre of students and researchers. 

Proper training must be given to the personnel involved so that they can identify various hazards involved in their experiments and be fully prepared to handle them, and in case of any mis-happening, be emergency-ready to deal with it and not panic–which is bound to happen if you do not have the knowledge of what to do. 

Near-misses (unplanned events that did not result in injury, damage or illness) must not be covered- up and go unreported because these are the signs/precursors of what worse can happen. These should not be written off as ’no harm, no foul’ situations but instead analysed and investigated to create awareness and prevent such things from happening in future. 

Finally, the institutions and the researchers must improve safety accountability. In this regard safety-councils or similar bodies could be created within institutions that take care of it by developing institution specific and laboratory specific safety protocols. They can further conduct regular and surprise inspections to laboratories and other facilities so as to ensure implementation of safety protocols and practices, in letter and spirit. This will ensure the existence of a safe working environment for all of us.

The author is a PhD scholar in the department of chemical engineering at Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar