Date: Thu, 4 Aug 2011 13:17:00 -0400
Reply-To: DCHAS-L Discussion List <DCHAS-L**At_Symbol_Here**LIST.UVM.EDU>
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From: ILPI <info**At_Symbol_Here**ILPI.COM>
Subject: Re: Recent Accidents in College Level and beyond Chemistry Lab
In-Reply-To: <4E3A8AAC020000BA0002FFB7**At_Symbol_Here**>

For well over ten years now, I've envisioned a web-based tool in which a researcher could input their chemicals/procedure and get output that recommends PPE, warns about incompatibilities, recommends waste disposal procedures, finds alternatives, displays accident data, etc. etc.   My baby step in that direction was the Material Safety Data Sheet Demystifier: sds/ref/demystify.html   And ut extends the ideas originally developed in the MS-Demystifier.

Of course, to extrapolate to the tool I describe would require tremendous effort.   The Chemical Safety Headlines =46rom Google=99 that get posted to this list give an insight into just how difficult it can be to have a computer collate and digest information.   Ralph has set up a Google feed that scans for keywords and collects the articles.  That then gets run through an ever-growing JavaScript that I wrote to make a first guess at tagging the keywords in the article.  Those then get a manual review before they are collected and sent off the list.  While the parsing algorithms work well for what they are, there is always some wording/construction/meaning that the code has not anticipated, so I'm constantly tweaking it.  For example, when we look to see whether the incident involved injury or death, it's not as simple as looking for keywords.  The article might say "no one was injured" or "chemical X can cause death" and the code needs to recognize not to raise the Injury or Death flag for those kinds of constructions.   Even for something as basic as the location, the algorithm does its best to determine where the incident occurred by looking first for a proper article byline (rare), scanning the text of the article for the state (which can fail as we had the other day with an incident in the city of Indiana, Pennsylvania), and the URL itself (but a Boston newspaper may be reporting on an incident in a bordering state), etc.

Still, once trained, the system works fairly well.  My experience so far indicates that with correctly parsed information this kind of safety wizard can be built.  The way to achieve that most effectively and affordably (safety information should not be out of the reach of schools that can not afford an expensive subscription) is through a wiki system.  Wikis are web-based frameworks that let users contribute to the content, as in WIkipedia.  By having members of the chemistry/safety community contribute (anonymously or otherwise) to a chemical safety system, we do not have to rely on search engine logic.  And when we want to have the system make recommendations, those should be fairly accurate because the information will have been rigorously parsed by humans.

If the chemical community (presumably under the aegis of the ACS) could establish a chemical safety wiki, it would provide the necessary central resource for the tool I described above.  Imagine a system where you could input n-butyllithium and not only get the usual sources of safety information (Bretherick etc.) but be able to view a list of laboratory incidents/injuries/deaths, handling procedures from Aldrich's web site, links to safety videos, reports on the AIHA site, old DCHAS post, titration methods etc.  Truly comprehensive and *relevant* information without having to do an extensive web/literature search.

This is doable today.  It needs a commitment, a back-end database, and a core of volunteers to get it off the ground.  The wiki nature makes it self-maintaining.

Rob Toreki

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On Aug 4, 2011, at 12:03 PM, Margaret Rakas wrote:

Re: [DCHAS-L] Recent Accidents in College Level and beyond Chemistry Lab
Thanks to Ralph's ability to comb through and present a wide variety of chemical accidents from around the globe, we frequently have access to first reports about accidents in academic institutions.  However, it is relatively rare that these present the kind of information that would help improve chemical safety at other institutions, because chemical names are omitted or mangled, full details of the type of process occurring aren't included (may not be known at the time of publication), etc.  And follow-up disclosures frequently are quite difficult to find:  they either don't happen, aren't published (who really wants to read about yesterday's news, especially when it's the dry topic of a chemical accident that isn't otherwise sensational), or otherwise don't surface.  I am sure the incidents reported to C&E News are a small fraction of what has gone wrong in labs, although I am very grateful to the writers and editors for taking the time and space to make colleagues aware.
I have no desire to make any researcher, at any level or institution, 'look bad'.  I also understand the reluctance of the institution's PR and legal offices to release details that they feel compromise the institution.  But I would really hope the Councillors would discuss the implementation of an anonymous reporting system that would include the details, because for some incidents, that is the only way to understand you may have a problem at your own instititution--it just (luckily) hasn't happened yet.  I think it is also important to realize these academic chemical incidents don't just happen in chemical departments; biologists, neuroscientists, and engineers use hazardous materials above and beyond the standard corrosives and flammables, and those of us who work in academic safety need to know about incidents and near-misses in those areas as well, so we can warn our researchers.   
My personal opinion only, not legal or business advice, and may not represent the opinion of my employer or any group to which I belong..

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