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.


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  1. […] seems like all of my favorite blogs, Chemjobber, ChemBark and Everyday Scientist, are all talking about chemical safety and dangerous labmates as a result of the screwball at Texas […]

    Pingback by Holy Best Practices Batman! It’s the “Dirty Dozen” « A Giant Among Molecules — August 27, 2010 #

  2. I know a Tx Tech employee very well. The student being blamed for the Tech explosion was smeared in a horrible campaign to save the ‘integrity’ of the PI. The student did not take home chemicals, like he is being accused of. He is a father of 3 children and would never expose his kids to chemicals. Tech really went out of their way to smear this guy. And it is a shame that it has worked. The PI got off scot-free by blaming everything on the student.

    Comment by IUPUI Chemist — September 2, 2010 #

  3. IUPUI Chemist makes a very good point. i wouldn’t be surprised if folks were working hard to blame him!

    Comment by sam — September 2, 2010 #

  4. CYANIDE!!!

    Comment by Marissa — September 25, 2010 #

  5. I am a HS student and from all the mail that I get from college science departments, about 75% of the pictures (on newsletters) show a female student with her hair down in a lab! Obviously colleges do not emphasize their lab safety courses!

    Comment by dihydrogen monoxide — November 7, 2010 #

  6. […] listen too. But as you know, Chembark and Everyday Scientist already did a great post here and here on that side of things.) This paragraph in the case study outlines exactly why more responsibility […]

    Pingback by Academic Chemical Safety: a discussion with Chemjobber | STEM_Wonk — October 25, 2011 #

  7. I would like to thank IUPUI Chemist. I know Preston Brown personally and I know for a fact that things that were reported are just not true. You are not being told the whole story. You are not even being told a truthful half of the story. Hope-weeks is a liar and an idiot. The fact that she got off is a load of crap. Preston Brown is a great chemist, father, husband and man. TT was just trying to save themselves from a lawsuit. By doing this they ran a good man’s name through the dirt. I just wish people weren’t so quick to believe all that they hear or read. I will thank you though for being thr nicest of any Blogger I have read about this incident. I do agree that dangerous chemist should be fired. My point is only that Preston Brown is not one.

    Comment by Allyson — October 12, 2012 #

  8. Thanks for your note, Allyson. I feel so bad for Preston Brown, and I hope that the University and PI eventually take a lot of the responsibility for this accident!

    Comment by sam — October 13, 2012 #

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