A Fiery Tale: A Summary of a Pyrophoric Accident
If you spend any time in a laboratory you will start to hear stories about accidents and near misses from your friends and colleagues. This is one such story which is an account of a laboratory accident involving a pyrophoric chemical. An undergraduate student at an academic institution was working with the pyrophoric chemical n-Butyllithium, which also reacts violently with water. n-Butyllithium is a very strong base, exceedingly useful in deprotonation and metal–halogen exchange reactions. As part of their undergraduate curriculum they were attempting to use this compound for the first time in an organic synthesis lab and had no knowledge of the pyrophoric nature of the compound. They were also working alone, which seems to be common practice in many universities, and had not received any training on how to work with pyrophoric compounds. The student quickly found out the combination of lack of training, lack of knowledge, failure to wear appropriate PPE and working alone creates a recipe for disaster.
The n-butyl lithium has a rubber septum on the top of the bottle. The student punctured the septum and successfully withdrew the compound up into the syringe, but upon removing the needle from the septum a few drops of the liquid spilled into the fume hood in which they were working. The student then attempted to wipe up the liquid with some paper towels which immediately ignited upon contact with the n-butyl lithium. At the time of the accident the student was wearing gloves, was completely alone in the lab and was not wearing a lab coat or goggles. The fume hood was full of other student’s chemicals and reactions so they picked up the flaming paper towels and threw them into a nearby sink in an attempt to get the fire out of the hood before all the other chemicals ignited. The paper towels then erupted releasing a large flame that engulfed the sink and then quickly went out as the student was not aware at the time that this compound also reacts violently with water. The student was very fortunate because they were going to turn on the water as their next move to extinguish the fire which could have had devastating consequences. This student was lucky and had just experienced a near miss that could have resulted in serious injury or death.
Only after hearing the tragedy at UCLA involving a student dying from burns sustained in a tert-Butyllithium exposure accident did the importance of this story truly become apparent to me and I realized how lucky the student had been that day. Thinking back I see several common practices that should have been changed such as failure to provide adequate training. The student should not have been allowed to use a high hazard chemical such as a pyrophoric without proper training. I have also learned throughout my career that it is imperative that you make your safety your priority and do not rely on departments, principle investigators, and lab managers to inform you of every hazardous chemical you are working with. It is imperative that principal investigators, lab managers, and other supervisory individuals understand that they are ultimately responsible for ensuring all laboratory personnel, including students, are:
- provided the proper training and are knowledgeable of the hazards of the chemicals they will be using before working with them
- provided and wear all appropriate PPE
- adequately supervised when working with hazardous chemicals.
I would also like to underscore that since most undergrads are required to earn credits for graduation by working in labs we must not forget our undergraduate students.
We now offer pyrophoric online training using E Train which is located in the Onestart system. Please make sure every faculty, staff and student working with pyrophoric chemicals have taken this important training. Make your safety your priority, review all the material safety data sheets or safety data sheets for every chemical you are using before using these chemicals and ensure all faculty, staff and students have been properly trained, are provided and using all appropriate PPE and are not allowed to work with high hazard agents such as pyrophoric chemicals alone.
Please use this true story of a laboratory accident as a learning tool and put into practice what I have discussed. Together we can create a safe environment to work and learn.