Org Prep Daily

February 23, 2007

The visitors from Hell

Filed under: industry life — milkshake @ 7:26 pm


I have great respect for safety officers – the job is thankless and the burden great if things go wrong. It takes foresight to protect people from getting hurt and the company from getting fined and sued. Respect has to go both ways though. The purpose of the safety office is to be helpful – guiding people to work better. Unfortunately many safety officers worry first about their alibi. Safety officers from the unhelpful category also like to throw their weight around – threatening people with disciplinary action or punitive “re-education” classes. I am fortunate to be at institute that doesn’t have trolls running the EH&S office. But I got some exposure in the past.

The problem is much like with the traffic cops – the authority of the safety office gives means to a bully. A bad safety officer can make the safety compliance hard, by promulgating rules like”maximum 3L of highly flammable materials can be stored in the lab”. Trolls are stubborn – they like to insist “no, you can’t” and “yes, you will have to” (to make their arbitrary position sound impartial and prudent, it gets usualy dressed up like …”it is our written safety policy”… or …”not permissible according to the state regulations”). A safety troll will write you citations for “unsheathed needles left in the open, unattended” for a Hamilton syringe on the bench, or “unsafely-stored chemicals” for a plastic bottle of bicarbonate solution kept on the window-still.  

There is a huge amount of government chemistry-related safety regulations that would, if taken to extreme, prevent all accidents from occuring in the lab – simply because people would be unable to do any lab work while observing these rules. A good safety officer should know about the work done in the labs so that he could decide for himself what is required, what is possible, and what is reasonable. One has to first understand the work that one is trying to make safer and use common sense to see what rules are applicable. To learn which procedures and equipment pose a particular hazard and to find out which chemicals are nasty. The way to identify and solve real safety problems (rather than imagined ones) is to encourage the lab researchers to propose the ways to go about minimising risks. They tend to have a more detailed knowledge about the problem and voluntary arrangements work better in the long run than half-baked safety policies imposed with heavy hand. 

But if the safety officer is a pompous troll that knows everything best and enjoys pushing others around, he will have no knowledge about the lab and he will remain isolated and despised. So, he will resort to writing down (and sending up) his thoughts on the bicarbonate bottle and syringe on the bench – and maybe also about that yellow floor-stain in the corner that he noticed on his inspection. These “problems” are not called by their true names in the safety violation report though – alarming but vague language can give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.


The most absurd lab safety system that I heard of was at Hoechst medicinal chemistry institute in Frankfurt in 90s. The medchem building was located within an industrial area – a major plant making commodity chemicals. The chemical plant had serious accidents over the years, chemicals spilled into the river too often, the company was fined repeatedly and the bad press was getting out of hand. So the management decided to implement a new safety oversight and the safety office got free run of the place, including the medchem labs at the location. The main outcome was a relentless scrutiny of the medchem labs.  The hoods and chemical cabinets and analytical instrument rooms seemed infinitely more interesting than reactors full of cresol and more pleasant to inspect. So many different little things in these labs could be regulated and the safety officers found out that they could demonstrate their newly-mandated proactiveness by issuing repeated citations to medicinal chemists. (The plant processes workers were cited less because they knew how to fight back and dispute the accuracy of the safety violation reports with their process manuals and operating parameter logs; it was just taking too much work for the safety people to go after them)… This affair progressed into a serious medicinal chemistry harassment – the repeated citations, including minor ones were referred to HR and carried pay-cut penalties and even a possibility of a dismissal.

The pinnacle of the Frankfurt rules (a typical one: “no benzene allowed in the lab, including C6D6 for NMR”) was that the medicinal chemists were required to turn off all instruments including the stirplates at the end of the day. The power to the labs was always cut at 7pm and the fume hoods were turned off at 8pm. (The labs reeked every morning) A reaction that required a one-day reflux took three workdays in Frankfurt.

My friend, a boss of a small group there got so worried about the inspections and possible fines and summons to HR “to deal with the repeated safety violations” that he asked his colleagues to organize and clean up everything, even to climb and reach deep into the hoods to remove all the accumulated dust and grime from inside. Unfortunately he forgot about the newly-installed smoke detectors in the hoods. A shot of freon gas from a can dust-blower was enough to set the detectors off. The fire alarm triggered a massive response – the city had a heavy-duty firefighter squad located right outside the plant gates. Afterwards, the group members held a lovely discussion with the management about who is going to pay the 20 000 Deutchmark bill for all the fire trucks and people in bunny suits on the scene…


  1. When I was a grad student, the safety folks wanted to pass a rule that would ban glass containers in chemistry labs(!) Needless to say, that got shot down by the faculty in a hurry, but it kind of goes to show how disconnected safety officers can be from the people whose safety they are supposedly protecting.

    Comment by Russ — February 24, 2007 @ 10:11 am

  2. “I love the smell of chloroform.”
    –a quote from the building safety officer, who is actually a chemist

    The campus safety people aren’t quite this laid-back, but they’re still not Nazis.

    Comment by Ψ*Ψ — February 24, 2007 @ 3:43 pm

  3. The safety office at my previous employer only had three fingers on one hand….perhaps this was a sign….

    Large scale Swerns vac’d down on an evaporator on the open bench…no problem!
    Find a significant quantity of mercury sitting on the floor under an old (very hot) pump during an impromptu tidy-up… worries!
    One co-worker filling the air with pentenoyl chloride stench (more than once)…chill out dude!
    150 litres of flammables in one (five man) lab….no danger! (or should that be risk?)
    10 litre waste containers sitting on the lab floor open to the air…that which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger!
    Bottle of dry picric acid found in an old lab leading to a call to the bomb disposal squad….only a minor inconvenience!

    Chlling stuff really.

    Comment by totallymedicinal — February 24, 2007 @ 3:44 pm

  4. We have a mild-manered and reasonable Swiss chemist as a safety contact person for our lab, he works in the hood right next to me. (We were at the same company before where he also had this lab safety contact role). It really helps to have somebody calm who does chemistry with his hands to handle the EH&S requests – in that way any potential disagreement can get defused right at the beginning. A well-intentioned but dumb suggestion from a safety officer can produce a scathing reply from a chemist, e-mails start flying back and forth and get forwarded to the management, and the hurt feelings then escalate into a pissing contest with the safety office. One definitely does not want to go there.

    Comment by milkshake — February 24, 2007 @ 9:34 pm

  5. Reading this evoked a strong and unpleasant sense of deja vu. During an awful transition we had an HR lady somehow take on the role of temporary health & safety mangager, despite having a dearth of any kind of experience in chemistry or a lab. It became her hobby to email us almost daily with new policies she’d drummed up, which mostly revolved around her apparent fear of immolation. Daily inspections ensued, where she would wag her finger at things that “looked dangerous” like waste acetone containers on benches, or cardboard boxes underneath desks. We were then banned from storing solvents in the lab (kind of impossible), and instructed to pick them up from the store room only when needed. After complying, she then cooked up the genius policy that only 2 bottles of solvent per person could be taken from the store room at a time. Accordingly, people were doing multiple trips to the store room each morning, often recruiting lab mates in order to get more solvents up in one trip. I might add that the location of the store room during this time was in the basement of the building next door, and thanks to HR lady, transport of chemicals was only permitted through the most annoying maze imaginable, including no less than six locked doors/elevator which required a key-card that you were required to “sign out” from the lab technician, and a friggin hoist for getting the trolley up a flight of stairs. There were only three or so key-cards, which often meant being turned away on attempted trips to the store room due to all the cards being in use. Reaching those levels of frustration so early in the morning were doing no favours to my health and safety, and the unbelievable policies set by one incompetent woman were obliterating hours of man time. Thank God that she took on a new position somewhere in another department, and a person with a background in chemistry stepped in to save the day… But that horror show burned valuable months of my PhD, and taught me all too early how clueless administrative staff can bring a lab grinding to a halt.

    Comment by croon — February 6, 2015 @ 1:27 am

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