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October 9, 1997

Pitt launches new safety program to lower the odds of lab accidents

On Aug. 14, 1996, Karen Wetterhahn, a distinguished research chemist at Dartmouth University, transferred the dimethylmercury she was working with from one container to another; in the process, she spilled a couple of drops of the substance onto one of her latex gloves.

Well aware that dimethyl-mercury was a toxic substance, Wetterhahn quickly cleaned up the drops. But what she didn't know was that the Karo syrup-like chemical was so soluble that it instantly penetrated both her glove and skin.

Five months after the accident, Wetterhahn's speech was slurring and her walk weakening. By the time those symptoms were connected to the accident, though, the damage had spread to her brain.

Tests showed she had 80 times the lethal dose of mercury in her body. Her vision narrowed to beams no thicker than a pencil and she lost her hearing. Finally, she drifted into a coma and died in June.

Although the propensity of humans to make mistakes means that no system to prevent accidents when handling hazardous chemicals will ever be 100 percent foolproof, Pitt is hoping to lower the odds of mishaps that can lead to serious injury or even death with a new chemical hygiene plan.

Developed by a provost committee made up of representatives from all science-related departments of the University and the Department of Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S), the plan is designed to help Pitt faculty, staff and students who work in laboratories to practice "safe science" by using chemicals in a manner that complies with existing regulations and standard laboratory protocol.

The program will kick off with a series of three consecutive one-hour sessions on Oct. 24 starting at 1 p.m. in the Benedum Hall auditorium. The sessions will introduce the program and discuss regulatory requirements and department responsibilities. No registration is required for the Oct. 24 sessions.

"Every person who is a chemical laboratory worker will be required to at least have that introductory program," said Larry Keller, chemical hygiene officer and director of EH&S. "Then we'll be developing a series of specialized programs based on the types of materials and hazards that might be associated with a lab." The specialized programs are still being developed, according to Keller. Some of them are expected to be available by the end of this year or early 1998.

"Each lab will be developing its own set of standard operating procedures, safe operating procedures," Keller continued. "Anyone transferring from one lab to another will be required to review that particular lab's requirements." Laboratory users also will be required to know how to access, read and understand material safety data sheets and other information involving the chemicals they work with, according to Keller.

"The chemical hygiene program is really based on a concept of prudence and taking care to practice safe science," Keller explained.

Although nothing like what happened at Dartmouth has happened at Pitt, Keller admitted that accidents do occur. One Pitt lab worker, for instance, was injured last year while handling material that had built up pressure, exploded and sprayed glass in every direction. There also have been occasions when small amounts of gases have been released.

"Every laboratory has its small incidents," Keller pointed out. "That's one of the things that is inherent in our work at the University. We're looking at the cutting edge. That requires more prudence of us than ever. A chemical hygiene plan is meant to be a constant reminder to think about aspects of materials and the potential hazards they might present." The cornerstone document for the program will be a manual containing extensive information on classifying chemical hazards, the procurement, distribution and storage of chemicals, lab control measures and equipment, personal protective equipment, education and training, and hazardous waste disposal.

In addition to the text version of the manual, an electronic version, as well as other information on the chemical hygiene plan, is available on the EH&S homepage of the World Wide Web at

EH&S also can provided the 1995 edition of the national Resource Council's "Prudent Practices in the Chemical Laboratory." The book is a reference guide for planning experiments and assessing the risks when using hazardous chemicals.

For more details on the chemical hygiene plan, the introductory training sessions or other information on working with hazardous chemicals, call EH&S at 624-9505.

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 30 Issue 4

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