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Environmental Health & Safety

ADVISORY PYROPHORIC AGENTS

At UCLA a researcher was severely injured when working with t-butyl lithium.  The following is an edited report on the incident:

On December 29, 2008, UCLA experienced a fire in the Molecular Science Building when a 22-year old research associate intended to add an unknown aliquot of 1.6 M t-bu-Li (in pentane) to a flask. The employee was employed in the lab for approximately 3 months.

The PI had trained the employee to slightly pressurize the bottle (e.g., 250 ml Aldrich Sure Seal container) with Argon and withdraw the desired aliquot using a 60 ml syringe, fitted with a 20 gauge needle.  The PI utilizes these particular syringes due to their tight seal.  There is no evidence that the employee used this method. The employee may have attempted to draw the aliquot into the syringe.  The syringe plunger may have popped out or was pulled out of the syringe barrel, splashing the employee with t-bu-Li and pentane.  The mixture caught fire upon contact with air.

Although the employee was wearing nitrile gloves and safety glasses, she was not wearing a lab coat. The fire ignited the synthetic sweater she wore and the nitrile gloves.

Although an emergency shower was located six feet from the fume hood, she ran from the area away from the shower.  One of the post-docs working in an adjacent laboratory used his lab coat to smother the flames.  Once emergency response arrived, the employee was placed in the shower and transported to the ER.

The employee suffered second degree burns on her arms and third degree burns on her hands; a total of about 40% of her body. There was very little damage to the lab. She died Friday, January 16, 2009. 

Cal/OSHA began their investigation of the accident on 1/5/09. Their documentation requests include asking for training records, accident report, etc.  UCLA EH&S has begun an audit of the Molecular Sciences Building, where the accident occurred.  The building is the home for much of the Chemistry Department research, principally organic.

Lessons Learned:

Working with pyrophoric chemicals requires the implementation of safe handling procedures that includes:

  • Know the hazards of the agents being used.  Review MSDSs and product labels before using any agents.
  • All lab employees must following safe work practices, the lab's established/written SOPs, and wear appropriate PPE.  Document the safety training given/received.
  • Don't assume new employees are fully trained, regardless of their position.  After training is provided, observe the employee performing the activities to ensure training/directions were clearly understood.
  • All lab employees must be aware of the location and purpose of safety showers and eyewashes, and be trained to use them.
  • If you believe a particular protocol may not be safe, contact EH&S for a hazard assessment.

For additional information contact EH&S at 275-3241.


QUESTIONS or COMMENTS?
Contact EH&S at (585) 275-3241 or e-mail EH&S Questions.

This page last updated 11/24/2010. Disclaimer.