Safety First!

When science comes before safety
APR 2019
Chemical Engineering

As an MIT grad student doing cutting-edge research, have you always keep safety as your first priority?

I hope your answer to this question is, “yes”. But in reality, many people feel that paying attention to safety will reduce their productivity. All graduate students coming to MIT are undoubtedly smart and have achieved a lot before. However, these extraordinary experiences have led us to overlook the safety details of many experimental operations.

For example, as the safety officer of our lab, I have repeatedly reminded my labmates to wear goggles and to put on lab coats before performing experiments. However, I periodically find that my coworkers only wear their own prescription glasses (not adequate protection against explosions or solvent splashes) or wear nothing over their clothes during experiments. This bad behavior once resulted in a bad consequence. A labmate opened a reactor without noticing the residual pressure in it. The solvent inside splashed out onto his body and face. Thanks to  goggles on his face, the solvent did not hurt his eyes. But his favorite hoodie was not lucky enough to survive this splash, as he was not wearing a lab coat.

Maybe a splash on your favorite clothes is not that intimidating, but what if I told you that your daily experiment could potentially hurt you?

A couple of weeks ago, as I was on my way to work, I received a message from my labmate telling me that there was an explosion. My first thought was that the explosion was an exaggeration, so I asked “Where was the explosion?” As I was waiting for his reply, I approached Building 66 and found that the whole building had been evacuated and the fire alarm was resonating in the hallway. Shocked and worried, I went to the emergency gathering spot to check that everyone had evacuated. Luckily, everyone had left the building  safely, and the explosion had caused no injury. After talking with my coworkers, I realized that a 1-liter reactor vessel in the lab overpressurized and broke the rupture disc, allowing the dangerous pyrophoric catalyst to splash out and cause the fire. Luckily, the reactor was set up inside an enclosure, and the fire was contained.

Although I have been  performing chemistry experiments for more than 10 years, this was the first time that a severe accident happened where I work. Even though nobody got hurt in this case, just thinking  about the possibility of someone getting severely burned is intimidating. A safety incident is a bad thing, but, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. After this incident, I feel lucky that the previous splashing incident had occurred first, after which the whole lab agreed to wear fire resistant lab coats every day while performing experiments. The evacuation incident can also be a great opportunity for the whole MIT community to think more seriously about lab safety.

As a “survivor” of the incident, I started to learn how other people prevent lab accidents. The concept of a "fail-safe plan" caught my attention. "Fail-safe plan" is a design feature or practice that inherently prevents a further harm to people or the environment. For example, in this fire incident, the enclosure where the reactor was placed  served as a “fail-safe” measure to prevent further fire hazards. Researchers wearing fire resistant lab coats is also a “fail-safe” measure in case the enclosure could not contain the fire. So when I look back today, the fact that no one got injured in my lab’s incident no longer seems just a lucky coincidence: following a “fail-safe plan” also played a big role.

Generally speaking, a lot of us do not consciously have the “fail-safe plan” mindset. We rarely have lab accidents, and so we typically do not think many steps ahead of our current situation. Nevertheless, this does not mean this mindset is not something we can be trained for. A simple way to cultivate this thinking is to ask a “what if…” question. For instance, if you are running a high pressure reaction and you know you already have a pressure relief valve implemented to protect from a disastrous explosion, try to ask yourself: what if the pressure relief valve was triggered? Will it generate a shock wave? Will the gas/liquid inside be ignited when it bursts out?   

Imagine your personal health and safety is one and your achievements are like zeros adding behind it. As we achieve more and more in our life, we become more and more significant. However, if we lose the “one”, all the things left are just zeros. So starting from now on, safety first!