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“Boy, Do We Have a Fun Story for You.” IANM V6 Story

This story is included in the inaugural 2021 edition of Safety Partners’ publication, “Incidents, Accidents, and Near Misses in Laboratory Research.”

For many people, there is an anxious optimism in the first few weeks at a new job. You’re trying your best to get up to speed on your tasks, your workflow, and your environment. All the while, you are trying to piece together the personalities and interpersonal dynamics of your new colleagues. Any bit of information you can glean from these guarded interactions can help you prepare for the road ahead. That’s why it was enlightening, albeit jarring, when my new PI began my first meeting with, “Boy, do we have a fun story for you.”

The flippancy with which Dr. Stanton brought this story up didn’t quite match the tone of the incident, but underneath the amiable storytelling was a thinly veiled air of seriousness. This was to be expected, considering we were working on unstable nitrogen compounds with a propensity to explode.

Dr. Stanton talked about a post-doc who used to work in her lab, Dr. Fulmer. As a post-doc, Dr. Fulmer was used to working irregular hours; that comes with the job. One Sunday morning, she came in around 1:00 AM; she was used to it by now, you can’t complete a post-doc without a few sleepless nights! In hindsight, however, perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to be working with explosive compounds alone late at night. After years of working with such materials though, she wasn’t too concerned.

A couple of hours into her experiments, something caused the chemicals she was working with to explode violently. She was immediately pelted with shards of glass coated in the residual nitrogen compounds. The fragments of glass that missed her struck the freshly cleaned glassware on the drying rack behind her. This glassware shattered on impact, showering Dr. Fulmer on the other side with even more glass shrapnel. The explosion was so intense that it damaged the ceiling.

Unfortunately for Dr. Fulmer, she was not wearing a lab coat when this happened, and her skin got perforated with bits of glass covered in toxic nitrogen compounds. She needed to react quickly to prevent the toxins from getting into her system.

Luckily, she was wearing her safety goggles, so much of her face was protected. She dashed to the safety shower and washed the reagents and blood off her body. She also used the safety phone that was nearby to call for medical support.

Security arrived first. They surveyed the situation and got Dr. Fulmer to the hospital promptly, where she had almost 50 pieces of glass painstakingly removed from her body. Thanks to the safety glasses, none of them landed in her eyes, and her vision was intact. Equally important was having quick and unobstructed access to a functional safety shower. If not, she would have had to deal with the systemic effects of these toxic chemicals, and who knows what could’ve happened.

This incident has stuck with me for many years. I bring this lesson to every company I have ever worked at. Wear your PPE, always. Never ever, ever, ever block the safety shower. Never work alone with explosive chemicals. “Oh, I’m just working here for a second,” means nothing when accidents can happen in the blink of an eye and have life-altering consequences.

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