It Only Takes a Second

Shortly after Christmas during the holiday break, Elise, a relatively new graduate student in Professor X’s group, with experience in "scale-up process safety" attempts to carry out a chemical reaction known by the greater research community to be dangerous as the reagent required can catch fire spontaneously upon contact with air. Specialized training is required to handle this reagent properly. Available to supervise Elise are two postdoctoral students both of whom have limited proficiency in English. Elise, wearing a sweater, dons safety goggles and nitrile gloves and eager to prove her worth, sets about to transfer two ounces of the reagent from one sealed container to another using a plastic syringe…

As a group, discuss each of the following questions:

1. As a new graduate student working in a new research environment and performing an unfamiliar procedure, are there any things that you think Elise should think about, plan for, or do before attempting to carry out this experiment?

Likely Elise wants very much to impress her new research advisor. This could make her takes risks that she might not take otherwise. Elise should make sure that she knows how to properly handle this new reagent by researching the reagent and obtaining hands-on training from her research advisor and/or the Office of Environmental Safety at her academic institution. She should also make sure that she is adequately clothed and that she has the appropriate safety measures in place in case of accidental exposure. Since Elise is unfamiliar with the procedure, it is important to carry it out the first time under ideal conditions. Ideal conditions would be when her advisor is present to supervise her, when senior group mates are around to provide such support, and when she is alert and focused. Holiday break is likely not the best time to carry out this procedure safely.

2. Reading the above scenario, in light of your answers to question 1, do you think that Elise has adequately covered all her bases? What, if any, problems do you see here?

Elise has not adequately covered her bases. She is working unsupervised, inappropriately garbed, without adequate knowledge, experience, and support. She does not have the appropriate safety measures in place and is likely exhausted. She is a safety disaster waiting to happen.

3. Would your concerns change if Elise were a postdoctoral student? An undergraduate student? A high school student?

Younger students should not be carrying out such a dangerous experiment without appropriate supervision by their research advisor. Even if Elise were a postdoctoral student and experienced in the handling of this reagent, she should work safely - dress appropriately, have the appropriate safety measures in place before beginning work, and work only when she is alert and focused.

Basis for the Case

Regrettably this story ended quite tragically for this talented young researcher. In the process of attempting to transfer 2-oz of t-butyl lithium, the plunger came out of the plastic syringe, splashing the young researcher’s gloves and sweater with the reagent, which burst into flames. The died 18-days later of second and third degree burns over forty-percent of her body. Five months later, the California division of the Occupational Safety and Health Admiinistration (OSHA) fined UCLA for 3 “serious” violations of workplace safety laws finding that the university had not properly addressed previous outstanding safety violations in that research group, that student had not been adequately trained and that she was not wearing the appropriate protective clothing (flame resistant lab coat) at the time of the fatal incident.

K. Christensen. (2009) Los Angeles Times May 5. “State Fines UCLA in Fatal Lab Fire.” Avail. URL: http://www.latimes.com/features/health/la-me-uclalab5-2009may05,0,6665233.story
Mitch. (2009) “Tert-Butyllithium Claims Fellow Chemist at UCLA.” Avail. URL: http://www.chemistry-blog.com/2009/01/20/tert-butyllithium-claims-fellow-chemist-at-ucla/