I don’t mean that if someone makes one mistake they’re gone, but if they consistently put themselves and others in danger, they should be fired. Or do theory.
Dangerous chemists are the ones who don’t know how to perform labwork safely, but think they do or refuse to ask for guidance. They are the ones that everyone else in lab knows is unsafe. They make the same mistakes over and over. They regularly work in lab alone. They don’t update their labmates about the dangerous compounds or reactions they are using.
Dangerous chemists are inconsiderate, put others at risk, and should be fired.
I started writing this a while back because I’d heard stories from friends about a chemist. His labmates are scared of his experiments because he was reckless, ignorant, and didn’t talk to people about what he is doing. He performed dangerous reactions on the work bench instead of the hood.
For instance, his labmates noticed that he was holding his breath while in lab, making adjustments to some reaction. When asked why he was holding his breath, he answered that the reaction produced dangerous fumes. So, instead of properly venting the reaction, discussing the reaction with his lab/PI, or warning his labmates, he just held his breath.
And yet this chemist was allowed to continue working in lab, even after many complaints to his PI and others in authority. He should have just been fired; I’m sure there’d be someone capable eager to take his spot!
I wasn’t going to post this, because it there were some funnier things to blog. But now the story of Preston Brown blowing off his fingers after grinding up 10 g of very explosive hydrazine. (The returned ChemBark also blogged this!) Now, I feel sad for Brown: he did not deserve to be injured, even if he was being reckless. But I also think that he should have been fired long before this accident occurred. It sounds like his labmates knew he was dangerous.
If there’s someone in your lab who you think is dangerous (who, if he or she blew up the lab, your first reaction would be, I saw that coming), do the following:
- First talk to him/her. Voice your concerns and offer to help train him/her in proper technique.
- Talk to your PI. State clearly that you are concerned for your personal safety in lab because of your labmate’s dangerous behavior. Make sure the lab has an SOP for every dangerous procedure in lab. And make sure the SOP is enforced.
- Talk to the authorities. If your PI refuses to make the situation safe, go to the department safety coordinator or the EH&S.
- Refuse to work around dangerous chemists. It’s not worth putting your life at risk. You’d have ground for a lawsuit if they fire you for refusing to work in an unsafe environment. (Hell, you may not even be covered by worker’s comp if the idiot hurts you!) Stand up for your rights: grad school is not a sweatshop.
- Document. Save emails and sent paper letters, just in case you need to sue. ;)
That said, I suspect that most things never have to go past step 1. I think most dangerous things done is lab are mistakes or lack of understanding of the correct protocols. Rarely, someone repeatedly ignores protocols and their PI’s instructions to intentionally perform dangerous experiments. But those rare instances is what I’m talking about. Those fools need to be fired.
I do want to note, Brown’s story is not final. Maybe it’ll come out that he was not as reckless as it seems from the C&E News article. In fact, it’s entirely possible, that he just wasn’t trained well enough. My point is that it is his PI’s responsibility to train him in safety, and fire him when he refused to be safe!
And I want to say again that he did not deserve to be injured. I feel really bad for him. A quote from the investigation transcript: “OK. Thanks again for coming to the house. I know. It’s a little more hassle. … I was left handed. I’ll have to be right handed now.”
UPDATE: Chemjobber has a nice post about why the faculty members bear some responsibility in the Texas Tech case.
UPDATE 2: AGAM has a post reminding us not to be too cocky in our safety knowledge. A good point: we all should regularly be boning up on our safety train, and communicating with our colleagues about best practices. Here are links to Prudent Practices and working with azides.