Date: Tue, 28 Jun 2011 08:55:05 -0400
Reply-To: DCHAS-L Discussion List <DCHAS-L**At_Symbol_Here**LIST.UVM.EDU>
Sender: DCHAS-L Discussion List <DCHAS-L**At_Symbol_Here**LIST.UVM.EDU>
From: ILPI <info**At_Symbol_Here**ILPI.COM>
Subject: Re: Boston College incident follow up
In-Reply-To: <A6BDD774-2882-4C55-AF1D-9AA1A32F5A08**At_Symbol_Here**>

I am not surprised at the student reaction.  As I have said many times before, there are generally two classes of people in emergencies: those who automatically respond the way they need to for the situation at hand and those whose brains vapor lock regardless of the amount of training they've had.   I've seen many cases of each, but here are two cases of the latter in situations where the student was working alone; the first is rather similar to the BC incident:

1. This one is a second or thirdhand story.  When a former colleague of mine was in grad school in Germany, he was working alone in the lab late at night when he cut himself rather severely.  He thought it would reflect poorly on him working alone and being injured, so he stepped out the building.  To the right, some distance away, was the emergency room.  To the left, an approximately equal distance away, was his coworker's apartment.  He figured that he would go left (the direction opposite to the ER), get the labmate to say they were working together, and then go to the ER.  So he *walks* some distance (I was told about a mile) to his coworker's apartment.   When he got there, the coworker was not home.  So he sat down on the stoop (still bleeding) and waited around for more than an hour for the guy to come home.  I don't know much more, but apparently, by the time he did get to the hospital he had lost a good pint or two of blood.  Why phoning anyone did not occur to him is anyone's guess.

I hate to speculate, but I suspect we may see something along these lines in the BC case; perhaps she was not thinking clearly and decided to go home and get cleaned up and then return?

2. I arrived at this one a few minutes after it happened.  I've told this one before on the list previously (yes, the technique he used is improper).   A former colleague was working alone in the lab one afternoon (people were in and out, he just happened to be alone at that moment).  He needed to deprotonate something and he went to the fridge in search of n-butyllithium.   He did spy a bottle of t-butyllithium and thought to himself "n-butyl, t-butyl, basically the same thing....".   As he dispensed the t-butyllithium from the bottle using a syringe, he inverted the bottle, pumped in nitrogen, withdrew his aliquot and then, with the leaky-septum/overpressured bottled, withdrew the syringe.  A stream of t-BuLi immediately shot out onto the benchtop.  His first thought was "Fire! Working alone!  Pull fire alarm!"  Not a bad idea.  Except that he put the bottle down....on the flaming benchtop while he went to summon help.   Right idea, wrong execution.  The bottle then went up, and the fire almost got out of control before another worker came along and put the fire out.

When I think back through my undergrad, grad, postdoc, and professor days of countless late night and overnight lab experiments alone or in otherwise sparsely populated buildings, I can see two sides here.  At the time, I would have been outraged if someone told me that I couldn't work alone (our instrument and glovebox time was always at a premium and we had to work in shifts; some experiments could *only* be done at night).  In retrospect, the folly of not having and *enforcing* a defined protocol for late night/alone work is quite clear.    The institutions I was at did not enforce any such policies if they even had them.  Hopefully, things have changed some in the past 10-15 years, but if not, this BC incident should be a wake up call.

Rob Toreki

Safety Emporium - Lab & Safety Supplies featuring brand names
you know and trust.  Visit us at
esales**At_Symbol_Here**  or toll-free: (866) 326-5412
Fax: (856) 553-6154, PO Box 1003, Blackwood, NJ 08012

On Jun 28, 2011, at 7:57 AM, Secretary, ACS Division of Chemical Health and Safety wrote:

Gail asked me to pass this along to the list as background for some of the discussion occurring here. I would also note that there is a lot of speculation about the event in the media and blog-world; a summary can be found at on-college-student-injured-in-lab-explosion/

- Ralph

From: Gail Hall <gail.hall**At_Symbol_Here**>
Date: Jun 27 2011

The Chemistry Department and EHS at Boston College train every graduate student initially and annually to call Campus Safety in the event of an emergency. There are signs at every phone. There is even a question on the quiz that they have to take to get their keys.

At the moment we are still collecting information and don't have a cause for the explosion or a reason that the student acted as she did.  We seem to have had our share of learning opportunities in the past 18 months, and I will share our hypotheses and/or conclusions on this one when we have been able to fully research the matter.  I hate to think I have enough material for an article in JCHAS, but it's beginning to look that way.

In the meantime, if anyone has any ideas about sources of pictograms to help communicate certain things to students for whom English is the second language, we'd appreciate the information.


Gail Hall
Director, EH&S
Boston College

Previous post   |  Top of Page   |   Next post

The content of this page reflects the personal opinion(s) of the author(s) only, not the American Chemical Society, ILPI, Safety Emporium, or any other party. Use of any information on this page is at the reader's own risk. Unauthorized reproduction of these materials is prohibited. Send questions/comments about the archive to
The maintenance and hosting of the DCHAS-L archive is provided through the generous support of Safety Emporium.