Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Lab Tales: How A Chemistry Lab Experiment/Explosion Changed My Life

I was grateful for Dr. Robert Hill's insightful article "Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions" in this month's issue of the Bulletin.

Why I am interested

Whenever I hear about lab accidents it makes me feel a little nauseous. This is because I have several inches of permanent scar tissue on my arm and a smaller scar on my face to remind me how chemical burns can have a lasting impact. I don't think about it most of the time until someone I am talking to or waiting in the elevator with fixates on my arm and then turns away like they weren't looking.

Long story short

 It happened one night some years ago when I was a third year grad student. I needed to do a deprotination to make an alpha hydroperoxy. I had flushed out the system using Argon. I had carefully set up the drop-wise addition of a pyrophoric compound via cannulation. All at once, a bright flash, loud sound and extreme pressure and heat invaded my senses. I remember being stunned and gazing into the glass hood where I could see the hair near my forehead was on fire. I ran to the showerlike I had seen in too many different lab class introduction videos as a T.A.stripped off my lab coat and shirt, and pulled on the shower knob. I saw some of the skin was peeling off my left arm. A postdoc in the next door lab gave me his jacket, helped me over to his car and proceeded to drive me to the hospital emergency room. Another postdoc helped clean up the water on the floor (thank you kind postdocs!). The drive to the emergency room only took minutes but felt like an eternity. I kept asking the postdoc driving the car if my face was 'real bad.' I knew my arm was scarred but I was more worried I had permanently scarred my face. At the hospital I was treated for second and third degree burns to my arm and my graduate adviser arrived. Luckily there were mostly only first degree burns on my face but I did look like I had a severe case of acne for a while. (Nothing is quite the same kind of awkward as sitting with your very distinguished adviser in the middle of the night with burns over your arm and face while dressed in a hospital gown in the emergency room.)

Why any of this matters

 You might wonder if and how I was irresponsible that night of the accident, what I could have done to prevent it, or what I could have done differently. All I know for certain is that my view on the importance of safety training in academia has changed greatly since then. After the accident, I no longer see any part of lab safety training as just a theoretical discussion or mandatory obligation.

When in the lab, there is so much at stake. We have not only our immediate safety to think about (avoiding fires, spills, etc.), but also potential repercussions to our future-permanent scars, cancers, reproductive systems, etc. It is so important to take advantage of the safety resources we have.

Side note: Other than my dissertation, my most prized possession that I took from the lab is an old pair of safety goggles I wore that night. It has a big white splotch where there was back-splash from the explosion just over the lens that was protecting my right eye.

-Corrie K. Ph.D.


Chemjobber said...

Thank you so much for telling your story, Corrie! I'm glad you're all right!

Anonymous said...

Incredible story, Corrie. I hope your blog post wakes up some students and postdocs (and their advisors) to the importance of establishing a safety culture in the laboratory...and outside of it, for that matter. I can't tell you how incredibly upset I am to still see people working in a lab without safety gear on. On the flip side of the equation are those that wear their lab coats in chemistry and biology labs, and then walk in to the common room to have thei lunch with the same lab coat on. What on earth is going on here? Are we, as PhDs and future PhDs Meant to be relatively high up on the human intelligence scale? Thanks for sharing such a personal blog post...I'm very happy that you had your safety glasses on...maybe you'll see some time! (P.S. Great article by Bob)

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, terrible spelling by me...the end of my post was meant to read, "Maybe you will see me some time!"
Thank you!

Chemistry Grad Blog said...

Thank you both for your comments and kind words! - Corrie

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Ryan said...

Great stuff, I know if I was involved in a lab explosion it would definitely affect me.

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