Someone might want to look into the history of this. During 1955-1956 there was a fire in an (research?) organic laboratory on the top floor of the Chemistry Department at the University of Minnesota. The fire department arrived and used water, causing an explosion when the water reacted with sodium present. Considerable damage resulted and there may have been loss of life. I was teaching a freshman lab on probably the first floor. Power was lost but we told to stay in place that afternoon rather than evacuate.
- Define large spill?
- This is highly chemical dependent.
- A few grams of a really dangerous material would be “large” in the sense of creating more danger of exposure, fire, etc.
- A key point is to control inventory - have only what is really needed and aggressively manage amounts on hand and age of samples.
- peroxide formers, pyrophoric samples, flammable metals and other high hazard materials must to rigorously monitored and minimized.
- use alternative synthesis sequences to avoid really dangerous chemicals - think of alternatives to compounds like phosgene.
- Certain materials like solvents in organic labs, tend to be present in larger amounts and not as tightly managed. That can be a danger.
- The professor / PI / lab manager / must be responsible and accountable for their laboratory and what happens in it.
- Their lab personnel should be trained and that training tested, monitored and chronicled.
- New, dangerous chemicals should have a special place in terms of vigilance.
- Engineering controls for the lab - fume hoods, eye washes, safety showers, fire extinguishers, etc. must be tested, monitored and chronicled.
- Enforcement of using such controls and the proper personal protective equipment is critical to good lab safety.
- The decision to require lab personnel to call for help - fire department or other - should be decided by the person responsible for the laboratory and based on considering a number of issues:
- Does the fire department have any special training related to spills?
- We know of cases where industrial chemical operators - who were expert at handling certain very dangerous materials such as hydrogen - always called their fire department if there was a hydrogen fire but their fire department was not trained with hydrogen fires.
- The same was true of spills of very flammable materials.
- But in these cases, we are talking much larger amounts - tens of liters. If a lab has such levels of dangerous materials, they should rethink inventories.
- The fire department role was as back-up. The operators cleaned up the spill or put out the hydrogen fire with the fire department making certain that the spill or fire did not spread or cause other problems.
- It could be that a fire department, not trained or experienced handling chemicals, could soldier-in and actually do more harm than good. They are brave and proactive and that might not be exactly what the situation should have for the best resolution..
- Chemical fires and spills can easily call for those in charge to have special chemical expertise which most fire departments don’t have, don’t train for, and might not fully understand. Fire personnel who train on house fires etc. might make a poor decision for a chemical spill or fire.
- The false alarm issue should also be considered but, if the decision is made to call in spills and summon help of some kind, there should be positive reinforcement for whoever does that.
- Punishment could cause an organization to become too slow to summon help when it is really needed and result in disaster.
- It is also wise to handle training for a lab in meetings, training sessions, etc. in which all actively participate - don’t just post warning signs and assume that will cover any problem.
Experts at Finding Technical Experts™
The Risk Management Committee at my college is revamping our "Emergency Protocol Guide" for campus. Regarding chemical spills, they have asked me what should be on the chart when there is a chemical spill.
One member suggested that when a large spill occurs, the person should pull the fire alarm. Even for a pretty nasty spill, I am uncomfortable with that recommendation. I am worried that
- the fire department will be summoned for moderate-large spills of innocuous chemicals
- the FD will come for very small spills of hazardous chemicals, when the actual danger is pretty low
As a relatively new CHO, it seems to me that for chemical spills, the protocol would be to have a person call the FD if a chemistry professor determines that it is necessary.
In my teaching career, we have only had one nasty spill (boiling nitric acid spilled out of the hood and everyone started choking), which we mitigated by evacuating the lab and waiting until the lab ventilation system cleaned most of it out. Then we went in and mopped it up with bicarbonate.
I am interested in your thoughts, advice or experiences.
Associate Professor of Chemistry
1601 N. Benton Ave.
Helena, MT 59625-0002
Previous post | Top of Page | Next post