Carol never wore her safety goggles...
November 2, 2010 12:43 PM   Subscribe

In a few weeks I'll be giving a talk to my research group about chemical safety. Please help me find stories, videos, and photos to make it interesting, awe-inspiring, and informative!

I of course have all the MSDS and more as far as solid chemical information goes, and I've picked the relevant stories out of In The Pipeline, but I know there are a whole lot more relevant or incredible anecdotes and photos out there. I'm planning to stay in areas related to general lab safety and the chemicals we use (so really obscure organics are out, for instance), but we do use all of the following:

Sulfuric acid
Ferric chloride
Nitric acid
Halogenated solvents
Sodium hydroxide
Compressed gases
LN2 and liquid helium

and I have plenty of flexibility (we're a friendly, close-knit group, so I don't have to be too professional) to go outside the bounds a little if there's a particularly mind-blowing story or video available.

The group's chemical knowledge is all over the map, but we have some undergraduates and people who've never had any chemistry at all so not much can be too basic. I'm aiming to provide accurate information mostly to fill in gaps in people's knowledge and to make sure that no one's working with dangerous things without being aware of it. Everyone has ostensibly had safety training, but in some cases it's been years and they may not have been listening the first time. So anything from "Here's a video demonstrating why you always add acids to water and not the other way 'round" on up will be helpful. I prefer videos and pictures, but great stories will also work. Putting a little bit of the fear of god into them wouldn't be a bad idea, either.

I do want to make things interesting and memorable, so I'm happy to include dramatic, funny, or scary things, but I'll be careful in the final talk to be very clear about what's a realistic danger for us and what's just otherwise interesting.
posted by you're a kitty! to Science & Nature (19 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Have you seen the pictures from the Texas A&M incident where a liquid nitrogen tank was improperly sealed and exploded through the ceiling? Here's the 9MB pdf write-up including pictures.
posted by Durin's Bane at 12:58 PM on November 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

In my first newspaper job as a writer/photographer, I had to sit through a boring-ass OSHA safety lecture, run by this withered old woman that had barely enough strength to turn the pages of the three-ring binder. Yes, I know I should not drink a gallon of ink, thank you for telling me. Jesus Effing Christ, can I please GO now?

Then she gets to page whatever, and reveals that the most dangerous chemical in the entire building was in this cute little 1 oz. bottle right here. I used this almost every day. Got it on my hands. Breathed the fumes. Everything. And it's apparently not just "oh don't drink it" dangerous. It's "give birth to three-eyed fish babies" dangerous.

Holy fuck.

Well, shit. What am I going to do now for scratched black and white film?

Turns out there's a secret treatment the film companies don't want you to know about.

Nose grease. Seriously.

I never touched that bottle again.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:59 PM on November 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh btw, the liquid nitrogen tank explosion caused $450,000 in structural damages to the building.
posted by Durin's Bane at 1:01 PM on November 2, 2010

Oh, and for anyone reading this thread just for kicks, here's my favorite story.
posted by you're a kitty! at 1:09 PM on November 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I know it's not one of the things listed, but my high school chem teacher's favorite video was this one of alkali metals and water (he had the laserdisc version, but whatever)

This same professor had a video that he and a buddy made in college. The two of them obtained a 5 pound (2.3kg) brick of pure sodium metal contained in a bucket of oil. The two had this old 8mm video going on a tripod with them, the bucket and a small pond. They took the bucket and threw the contents into the pond and ran backwards (in frame). Nothing. Three minutes later, they let down their guard, still nothing. After about four minutes total, they have convinced themselves that what they threw in the pond was not sodium, and turn their back to the camera and walk away. No sooner do they turn does the brick of sodium finally blow, spewing out a small mushroom cloud of very caustic water and dead fish, one of which hit the camera.

This is also the same professor who hauled a brick of white phosphorus in a 5-gallon bucket of oil 30 miles to the nearest pharmaceutical to dispose of it, driving it in his VW Rabbit.

Also: anything to do with fluoride compounds. That crap is nasty.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 1:15 PM on November 2, 2010

You should definitely check out Bretherick's Handbook of Reactive Chemical Hazards, which contains a large number of terrifying stories.

Another source you might be interested in is "Ignition! An informal history of liquid rocket propellants". It's out of print, but pdf copies can be found with a little googling. It contains many hilarious and scary stories about hazardous chemicals that were used in the rocket program. On nitric acid:

RFNA [red fuming nitric acid] attacks skin and flesh with the avidity of a school of piranhas. (One drop of it on my arm gave me a scar which I still bear more than fifteen years later.) And when it is poured, it gives off dense clouds of N02 , which is a remarkably toxic gas. A man gets a good breath of it, and coughs a few minutes, and then insists that he's all right. And the next day, walking about, he's just as likely as not to drop dead.

From the chapter "Peroxide - always a bridesmaid":

And there was always the problem of gross pollution. Say that somebody dropped (accidentally or otherwise) a greasy.wrench into 10,000 gallons of 90 percent peroxide in the hold of the ship. What would happen-and would the ship survive? This question so worried people that one functionary in the Rocket Branch (safely in Washington) who had apparently been reading Captain Horatio Hornblower, wanted us at NARTS to build ourselves a 10,000-gallon tank, fill it up with 90 percent peroxide, and then drop into it-so help me God - one rat. (He didn't specify the sex of the rat.) It was with considerable difficulty that our chief managed to get him to scale his order down to one test tube of peroxide and one quarter inch of rat tail.
posted by 7-7 at 1:57 PM on November 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

If you want fear, you can include recent incidents in labs where people got killed or seriously injured due to carelessness and lack of training in the lab:
posted by jasonhong at 2:07 PM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

The book Methland contains many horrifying stories about various body parts (testicles, fingertips, nose) melting off in cooking accidents. Do a "search inside" on Amazon using the word "melt." (Do not read while eating.)
posted by scratch at 3:02 PM on November 2, 2010

I'm assuming you know this poem, seen in various forms but best known to me as:
Poor old Brown is dead and gone,
His face we'll see no more.
For what he thought was H2O,
Was H2SO4.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:06 PM on November 2, 2010

Do not store flammables in a normal refrigerator. The wiring is on the inside and if fumes are present, can spark and explode. EHS gave these pictures away on magnets when I worked at UVM.

"Oh, THAT'S how Fisher can get away with selling extra expensive fridges. They don't explode."
posted by maryr at 3:11 PM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

HF stories -- you definitely want to emphasize issues of safety with this one. Mention common names for chemistries that contain HF (such as BOE, buffered oxide etch, and PAD etch). Despite the fact that HF is a weak acid, it can interact with calcium in such a way as to kill despite there not being noticeable skin damage or immediate pain.

One story I'd heard: someone was doing some etching, scratched or rubbed the back of his head with a gloved hand, and later complained of serious head pains. He was incredibly lucky that his doctor thought to ask if he worked with HF, and prescribed calcium gluconate to stop the damage. (Actually, you may also want to talk to the safety team if they have calcium gluconate gel on site, or if the procedure is to immediately take someone with skin exposure to the ER to have them administer it.)

In addition to the MSDS's, you want to mention that users of even fairly benign chemicals, like isopropanol, should wear gloves if their use is significant and/or ongoing. There are stories of people who never bothered with gloves when doing IPA cleans and who ended up with fairly nasty local sensitization as a result.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 3:26 PM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh gods. HF.

Our safety lot always trot out this accident. ER episode 4x20 did a show that had a guy dying from HF. Essentially they put him in a room, gave him lot of morphine, and waited for him to die. There might be a nice short clip if you can get hold of a copy. Somewhere I have a users guide for calcium gluconate that includes phrases like "If necessary, remove the fingernail". I'll see if I can hunt it out. The stuff gives me the willies.
posted by kjs4 at 4:24 PM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

ER episode 4x20 did a show that had a guy dying from HF.

Michael Rapaport in a guest star appearance. Still gives me shivers to think about it. I can still hear Anthony Edwards' character giving him the prognosis: "We can make you comfortable."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:48 PM on November 2, 2010

I don't have any specific links, but my hazwopper trainer found an awful lot of horrifying videos on youtube of people doing spectacularly dumb things (bottle rocket tag, lighting themselves on fire in banana suits because "alcohol doesn't burn hot"). The better videos were from shows like mythbusters and other science shows because those folks demonstrated good safety along with the hazard. Remember that scary is good, but enough scary stupid and you lose the fainter-of-heart in your audience.
posted by ldthomps at 5:37 PM on November 2, 2010

Hexane isn't scary...until forty liters of it blows up.
posted by solotoro at 1:16 AM on November 3, 2010

Key safety phrase to holler at people when they've got their goggles up on their forehead: THE GOGGLES ARE *EYE* PROTECTION, NOT *FOREHEAD* PROTECTION.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:48 AM on November 3, 2010

Found it. Sorry that took so long.

My favourite bit:

Apply the gel repeatedly to the area and massage into tissues until 15 minutes after the pain has completely subsided. A thick necrotic coagulum may form and this may act as a barrier to prevent the penetration of the gel into underlying tissues. In this case, the necrotic tissue should be excised and the gel should be massaged into the bone and underlying tissues using aseptic procedures.

posted by kjs4 at 3:04 PM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Hexane isn't scary...until forty liters of it blows up."

This was at my institution, at my safety lecture thing they showed us a picture that is so much more fucking tragic. A bookcase with two shelves full of lab notebooks with their shape tantalizingly intact but nothing more than cinders...

posted by Blasdelb at 9:57 AM on April 28, 2011

I work for the Olin Chlor - Alkali devision and one of the best resources for some really great safety stuff is the chlorine institute. they have tons of free literature and videos for safety and emergency response for many of the chemicals you have discribed.
posted by vegascharlie777 at 2:00 AM on July 27, 2011

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