C&E News has published an article, 10 years after Sheri Sangji’s death, are academic labs any safer? (Dec. 28, 2018), that is a must-read for all chemists who either go into labs themselves or are responsible for sending others into a lab. The lab accident that took Ms. Sangji’s life was clearly preventable. Nevertheless, the many steps, small and large, that need to be taken to make chemistry labs, especially academic research and training labs, safer remain a work in progress.
An accident is a failure to anticipate hazard and to take all all of the steps needed to keep it from happening. One might say that risk is always present in lab work so what is to be done? But this misses the larger point. The little bits of acid that etched holes in the blue jeans I always wore to lab in graduate school were never going to kill me, but those holes pointed to an uncomfortable fact that eluded me at the time: my daily lab work was exposing me to chemical reagents without my being aware of it. Had the reagents been something more toxic, mutagenic, or reactive, the effects might have been far more unpleasant than damaged clothing.
Those of us who work in the lab, or send others into the lab for research or instruction, have a duty to insist on a universal culture of lab safety that promotes awareness of risk, and creates incentives for lowering all imaginable risks to tolerable levels. Until then, we will either operate in the denial that Ian Tonks describes in “I thought it would never happen to me”, or with that “icy ball of fear” that Debbie Decker (Safety Manager, Dept. of Chemistry, UC Davis) refers to in her companion essay, “How we’re making compliance beneficial”.