Accidental fire raises questions about chemistry lab safety

The recent death of a research assistant at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) from injuries sustained while working with a pyrophoric chemical have led to internal and external scrutiny of the university’s laboratory safety procedures. The tragic event, which involved t-butyl lithium, a compound that spontaneously ignites on exposure to air, could have widespread implications for academic chemistry departments.

’Every single major university will have to look at their policies regarding the handling of this type of material and will make adjustments accordingly,’ Russ Phifer, who chairs the American Chemical Society’s chemical safety committee, tells Chemistry World. ’Some may restrict the use of pyrophoric materials, or put protocols in place that require additional training for researchers.’

Phifer notes that several important lab safety rules appear to have been violated by the victim - Sheharbano Sangji, a 23-year-old research assistant employed at UCLA since October. For example, Sangji was working alone in the lab, which is prohibited, and it appears that she was not wearing the appropriate protective clothing.

Flash fire 

UCLA had told its researchers that they could work during the holiday break shut down for ’critical research needs,’ and on 29 December Sangji was working with a bottle of t-butyl lithium dissolved in pentane. While using a syringe to withdraw a quantity of the reagent, it seems she accidentally pulled the plunger all the way out, introducing air and creating a flash fire.

The incident raises questions about Sangiji’s training and supervision.  ’Sangji was not familiar enough with the material and delivery means to be doing the experiment on her own,’ says Phifer. 

The university believes Sangji was wearing nitrile gloves, safety glasses rather than goggles, and a synthetic sweater with no lab coat. When the fire ignited the gloves and the sweater, she sustained second and third degree burns over 40 per cent of her body and was immediately hospitalized. UCLA was notified on 16 January that she had died of her injuries.

After the incident and before Sangji’s death, UCLA launched a full review of its laboratory safety protocols. The review is in progress, and the university says it is also cooperating with a separate investigation being conducted by state regulators at the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, also known as Cal/OSHA. The investigation is likely to take two to three months, the regulator says, and any citations could bring fines ranging from $500 to upwards of $250,000.

’I would not be surprised if Cal/OSHA fines UCLA if, for example, the school can’t document appropriate training,’ Phifer adds.

’My hope would be that this raises awareness about the dangers of working in a chemistry lab,’ states Robert Latsch, an environmental safety and compliance officer at Case Western Reserve University’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Safety. He says the UCLA accident was preventable and hopes it triggers at least an evaluation of chemistry lab safety procedures at his university and others.

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA