In December 2008, a UCLA research assistant used a syringe to remove t-butyl lithium, a chemical compound which ignites instantly with air exposure, from an air-tight container. Within 18 days, the student died with second and third degree burns on 43 percent of her body.
The UCLA laboratory fire has raised questions over chemical safety among the scientific community. In response to the west-coast incident, due diligence from Michigan’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and laboratory insurance providers, and in accordance with routinely scheduled safety procedure reviews, Albion College reviewed and updated their chemical hygiene procedures
“What (the UCLA lab fire) indicated to the entire chemical community is that you can have regulations, but if you don’t educate the people who fall under their responsibility, then its like not having regulations at all,” said Andrew French, chair of the chemistry department.
Changes in lab safety procedure include requiring the use of protective eyewear in biology, physics, and geology labs where any chemicals are used. Use of goggles has always been required within the chemistry department.
“It’s just a matter of bringing all the sciences into line,” French said. “If they are using lubricants, flammable liquids, irritants, then you have to wear protective equipment. This is not a controversial thing. It’s just what we do now.”
For example, “common sense” protective gear including gloves and goggles could prevent eye injuries from particulate matter in a geology lab, and elevated heart rates from epinephrine utilized in advanced biology courses.
In addition, updated student-orientated incident reports in labs are required, Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) are available in every lab, and a chemical dumb-waiter is used to transport chemicals directly from the supply room to classrooms rather then the elevator.
According to David Carey, chemical hygiene officer, the majority of chemicals are diluted concentrated acids or bases that act as irritants. Periodically more concentrated acids and bases are utilized in labs.
However, last spring, an organic solvent was accidently poured down a sink in the organic teaching lab, dissolving the plastic and requiring a replacement of the pipe.
“The goal is to create a safety program that is uniform within the science departments,” Carey said.
French says that he has already signed approval of the new chemical hygiene plan, and the plan is being reviewed by the other department chairs before being sent to the provost for approval.
“It’s not like it’s a major inconvenience, so students should be able to adapt to it with no problem,” said Mark Kluk, Jackson senior and biology major. “It could only help, so there’s no harm in being cautious.”
In the past, Albion has routinely reviewed their chemical hygiene plan every two to three years to determine whether changes are necessary, according to Carey.
During the summer 2009, the chemical hygiene plan was reviewed for the first time since the new science center was built in 2004, and from now on the plan will be annually checked.
“The building created new challenges and opportunities for students, and therefore new challenges and opportunities for safety,” French said.