dangerous chemists need to be fired

August 25, 2010 at 2:32 pm | | everyday science, lab safety


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:

  1. First talk to him/her. Voice your concerns and offer to help train him/her in proper technique.
  2. 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.
  3. Talk to the authorities. If your PI refuses to make the situation safe, go to the department safety coordinator or the EH&S.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


August 23, 2010 at 8:50 am | | crazy figure contest, literature, nerd, science community, wild web

My (very nerdy) friends started a internetted-web-blog to celebrate/mock hilarious/terrible table-of-contents images: TOC ROFL. (In reference to NCBI ROFL.) I might even submit my own once in a while; you can too!

economic stimulus via science

August 16, 2010 at 9:44 am | | news, political science, science and the public, science community

Senators McCain and Coburn (who is a physician!) released a political report complaining about stupid stimulus projects. Now, it’s not surprising that Republicans are calling for cutting science funding and mocking silly-sounding science, so of course there are several science programs funded by stimulus money that this report calls out. Here are a couple:

“A Better Way to Freeze Rat DNA”

[S]cientists at the University of Missouri received stimulus funds ““to develop freezing protocols for epididymal rat sperm which would allow reconstitution of genetics by using standard artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilization methods.”” The scientists note that“ “[o]ver the last few years, our laboratory has generated ample amount of data related with optimal sperm handling.”

“Reducing Menopausal Hot Flashes Through Yoga”

“Weather Predictions for Other Planets”

“In a time when jobs are hard to come by, several high school and college students have gotten federal funding to inspire their scientific curiosity.”

OK OK, I understand that some of these seem silly, but when Senators start mocking scientific programs without acknowledging the broader context, those Senators come across as ignorant and foolish. The rat DNA one is especially annoying: Hehe, it says sperm! What, do they get middle-schoolers to write this stuff?

We could make any scientific project sounds silly if we wanted: Scientists try to send light down a tiny glass tube; federal government spending billions to develop satellites that will see where your phone is; some nut is trying to make a horseless carriage.

The point of gov’t stimulus is to get money flowing and jumpstart the economy. Most economists acknowledge that Federal spending has a significant multiplier effect, so spending money on construction projects, scientific research, and infrastructure isn’t really that silly. I can understand how some would question how studying rat DNA could make any money flow back into the economy, but those people would be forgetting about scientific-supply companies like Nalgene (originally of Rochester NY), ThermoFisher (of Waltham MA), Invitrogen (of Carlsbad CA), Sigma-Aldrich (St. Louis MO), etc. I’m sure those and many other companies that employ Americans are very happy about stimulus money going to scientific research!

Still, I do agree that these spending projects should not be beyond reproach. I’m not convinced that science funding is always the most efficient approach to stimulating a national economy in the short run. We should check up on our stimulus funding and try to measure how well each project is benefitting American taxpayers. But what McCain and Coburn have done is lazy—and ignorant. Instead of mocking science because it involves sperm or yoga (or even both), step up and take a mature approach to critiquing our spending policies!

(via Nature)

best spam comment ever

August 15, 2010 at 1:48 pm | | wild web

OK, this really cracked me up:

“I’m currently being held prisoner by the Russian mafia penis enlargement penis enlargement and being forced to post spam comments on blogs and forum! If you don’t approve this they will kill me. penis enlargement penis enlargementThey’re coming back now. vimax vimax Please send help! nitip penis enlargement penis enlargement.”

Photojournalism Tour

August 12, 2010 at 1:25 am | | everyday science, grad life, lab safety

These photos are from anonymous labs:

Like working at the MMS.

A monument to Thorlabs.

Money well spent.

Laser safety.

dangerous laser pointers

August 11, 2010 at 9:36 am | | lab safety, science and the public, science@home, stupid technology

NIST is warning us that some cheapo green laser pointers might be unfiltered and dangerous. Some manufacturers skip installing the IR filter, thus making a laser pointer that has a high-power invisible beam along with the green light.

The “green” of green laser pointers is 532 nm, doubled frequency of the 1064 nm emission from a neodymium (e.g. Nd:YAG, Nd:YLF, or Nd:YVO4) laser. A diode (e.g. 800 nm) pumps the neodymium laser, which emits 1064 nm light; a doubling crystal produces the green 532 nm light. But the doubling crystal is not 100% efficient, so an IR filter is necessary to block the remaining 1064 nm light that isn’t doubled (as well as block the 800 nm pumping light). The plot above shows how much 1064 nm light escapes if the filter is removed: it’s much more than the green light—if the 532 nm is 20 mW, the IR might be as high as 100 mW, certainly potentially damaging to the eye!

IR is especially dangerous laser light. First, it is invisible, so it is more difficult to identify and avoid stray beams. In this case, that’s less of a worry, because the green beam coaligned is visible. However, the second reason IR is dangerous is that, because it is invisible, you can’t tell how bright it is (see below). The final reason IR is dangerous is the biology of the eye, which is transparent to IR light, and focuses it to the retina (the nerves). IR can easily burn the retina permanently (causing blindness), or burn other parts of the eye or skin.

The simple method NIST suggests we can use to test our laser pointers is described in the announcement. Basically, they use a CD as a diffraction grating and a cheap webcam. The sensor of a digital camera is sensitive to IR light, but usually has a filter to see only visible; it is simple to remove the IR filter of a cheap webcam to make an IR sensitive detector. (Unfortunately, the sensitivity cuts out before 1064 nm, so the camera can only see the 800 nm pump light). The picture above shows the diffraction of the visible light with a normal digital camera; the bottom image is using the IR webcam. You can see the extra diffraction spots from the 800 nm light. Note also how much brighter the IR light is from the laser: even though you can’t see it with your eyes, it is very bright and dangerous.

By the way, my favorite line in the NIST report is the following: “The infrared light spreads out beyond the green, which could be injurious, for example, to a cat closely chasing a spot of green light.” Actually, that’s kinda sad: I hope the NIST folks didn’t discover this problem after they blinded their pet.

you’re doing it wrong

August 9, 2010 at 10:15 am | | everyday science, stupid technology

Fluctuations in a “cold” room I walked past.

That’s not good.

i just had a very berkeley moment

August 4, 2010 at 8:44 am | | nerd

I was walking up Hearst near campus. I said to a friend, “Well, I never got into Harvard.”

A nearby hobo overheard me and said, “You didn’t miss much! Anyway, I chose to go to Princeton in the end.”

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