When Chemical Inventory Management Becomes a Critical Safeguard in the Laboratory
Most scientists likely don’t begin the workday by considering how they will navigate a minefield. But when laboratory safety protocols and chemical storage rules are not carefully understood, or seriously enforced, the lab can become exactly that. On Dec. 29, 2008, Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji, a research technician in the lab of UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran, was exposed to air-sensitive chemicals, which burned over half of her body. Eighteen days after her accident, Sangji died. An arrest warrant was eventually issued for Dr. Harran, while the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office separately charged Harran and the UC regents with three counts of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards.
The Occupational Safety and Health Care Act is a federal law meant to ensure that employees work in environments free of recognized hazards. Sangji’s accident occurred as she was transferring approximately two ounces of t-butyl lithium into a new container, a procedure in violation of the law given that t-butyl lithium is flammable when exposed to air. Additionally, Sangyi was not wearing a lab coat and her sweater caught fire, melting into her skin and potentially causing worse burns than if she had worn a lab coat.
Who Is Responsible?
Sangyi should not be blamed for the series of events that led to her death, contrary to the arguments of lawyers for Dr. Harran and UCLA. In fact, many laboratories do not properly train their personnel and enforce certain procedures, which can render individuals vulnerable to accidents.
As reported by the organization California Watch, “The accident brought into focus the dangers inside university laboratories where students and employees, sometimes working without proper training or supervision, routinely handle toxic, flammable and explosive compounds.” Though charges against Harran were eventually dropped, this occurred only after the chemistry professor went to court to defend himself against felony charges. This story was prominently featured in news media, $4.5 million in legal fees was spent by UCLA to defend Harran, and most importantly, a young and promising researcher lost her life.
Though a lab coat may have saved Sangji that day, this was not the first time Dr. Harran’s lab had been cited for issues that can be, unfortunately, common in other labs as well. Ultimately, lax safety practices and poor chemical inventory management can create environments in which individuals often choose convenience over the correct protocol in handling and storing chemicals, which can lead to misplaced chemicals and a myriad of other problems. Ironically, in January 2010, the Chemical Safety Board investigated lab safety protocols at a number of academic institutions and found lab members “may view laboratory inspections [and chemical inventory management imposed] by an outside entity as infringing upon their academic freedom.”
These inspections referenced require that lab members know the location of chemicals, storage bins and handling protocols. Without this knowledge, not only is the health and safety of members compromised, but it can inadvertently slow the pace of research as hours of lab time are spent trying to locate misplaced chemicals, identify unmarked bottles, determine the right EH&S established guidelines for chemical disposal or find Safety Data Sheets (SDS).
This case and others like it powerfully illustrate the importance of lab safety and the likelihood that district attorneys and associated personnel will attempt to prosecute those who violate safety rules. As James Kaufman, president and CEO of the nonprofit Laboratory Safety Institute told California Watch, “[This case and the subsequent charges has had major, major repercussions in a lot of places” by forcing many researchers and principal investigators to consider their own labs’ safety culture or lack thereof.
The Case for Chemical Inventory Management
In this context, laboratories must practice safe chemical handling techniques and this process begins with better management of information about chemicals. Knowing the chemicals stored on site and tracking them from the moment they are received until they are discarded, will provide principal investigators (PIs) and lab managers with a clear understanding of what is in the lab and subsequently, if a new member must be trained in a specific procedure.
Taking care to enter this information in a digital database as provided by a chemical inventory management system will also provide individuals with the knowledge of how much of a hazardous chemical is available without having to unnecessarily expose individuals in the lab to the dangers of handling these chemicals. And of course, this information ensures that a lab is up-to-date on regulatory compliances, which will prevent future problems with regulatory agencies or even the closing of a laboratory facility.
Altogether, chemical inventory management enables scientists to decrease the ‘safety gaps’ in their own labs and thus, decrease the chance that a lab member experiences a deadly accident as occurred on Dec. 29, 2008. And with lab safety a top concern for many agencies, it seems beneficial for any laboratory to take proactive measures to help protect laboratory members.
Products such as BIOVIA CISPro will not only help protect a lab from suspension, but the additional safeguards the system provides can also help educate and protect workers from injury and death.