Top 3 Things You May Not Know About Laboratory Safety

1. In 2010, at Texas Tech University, two graduate students were conducting research for the Department of Homeland Security on explosive compounds. They were given the task of synthesizing and testing a new compound, a nickel hydrazine perchlorate (NHP) derivative. Though the compound was initially made in batches of 300 milligrams, the two students decided to scale up the production to 10 grams to make one batch of material for all their testing. That error led to the material exploding as the lead graduate student attempted to break up the clumps. The student lost three fingers of his left hand, had his eye perforated, and sustained cuts and burns on the rest of his body.

2. In another 2010 incident, a valve for the hydrogen cylinder was inadvertently left open during an experiment at a biochemistry lab at the University of Missouri. Hydrogen introduced into the chamber reached an explosive level and was ignited by a source in the chamber, according to investigators. Four researchers were injured, and the lab was destroyed. Luckily, none of the injuries in this incident were serious. One student who was admitted to the hospital was released the following day after treatment for burns. The lab was a total loss, but the building’s sprinkler system put out the resulting fire, limiting damage to adjacent areas.

3. A widely publicized accident that occurred in December 2008 at the University of California, Los Angeles involved a research associate who was planning to scale up a reaction using tert-butyllithium (t-BuLi), a pyrophoric material. For reasons unknown, the research associate was using a plastic syringe with a two-inch needle, requiring tipping the reagent bottle up in order to fill the syringe. In addition, she was wearing only nitrile gloves, safety glasses, and street clothes, including a synthetic sweater. No lab coat was used. The syringe and plunger separated during the first attempt at filling the syringe, and the t-BuLi and pentane spilled on her hands and sweater, immediately bursting into flames. She later died in hospital due to the burns she sustained.