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Did you know this was explosive? Still need it?" | Kimi Brown

Posted by Jonathan Klane on Sep 13, 2021 3:48:43 PM

Story narrated in their words by Kimi Brown, collaboratively prepared and written as a story by Kimi Brown and Jonathan Klane

We knew that a campus-wide chemical inventory program would help researchers work more efficiently and improve safety, but until we implemented ChemTracker, we had no idea what a powerful tool this would be!

Like many other places with labs, we do experience the occasional fire or spill. Although it’s rare, we have even had events that require a major emergency response and clean-up. When that happens, our ability to respond safely and confidently depends on getting quick information about the hazards in the space. It can save money in the aftermath, too.

Following one especially—impactful—lab fire (thankfully, with no injuries), we were faced with the daunting task of identifying everything that had been destroyed. With just a few clicks, we were able to export a chemical list, which saved a lot of time for both the disposal vendor and for preparing the insurance claim.

The fire department presented us with another post-incident conundrum: With so many chemicals involved, how should they go about decontaminating the turnout gear that they wore during the response? Because we were able to give them a definitive list of materials involved, they were able to clean and reuse the equipment instead of replacing it, saving the city tens of thousands of dollars.

Thankfully, not every event requires that level of response! We’ve relied on SciShield and ChemTracker to help us communicate lessons learned from smaller incidents, too.

Recently, a hazardous waste container over pressurized when improperly stored methyl methacrylate (MMA) polymerized in the bottle. In a more serious situation, there was an explosion when chemical vapor in a vacuum pump exhaust ignited. In our follow-up to both events, we used the SmartMailer feature to send targeted messages to all the labs across campus that needed to know about these dangers and the preventative actions to take. We sent updated hazardous waste procedures for MMA to the labs that had this chemical, and a vacuum pump safety alert to the labs who use pumps. This way, we could say in our message, “Pay attention, this applies to YOU!”

After we sent the vacuum pump safety alert, several labs replied, “Please come look at our pumps. We’re not sure if this is right!” Some were, indeed, not being used correctly. We were able to help fix the issues and likely prevented future incidents!

It’s funny what you learn sometimes when you suddenly have access to a detailed and searchable database of all your hazardous chemicals. One of our EHRS staff members decided to filter our institution’s chemical inventory by hazard classes just to see what kind of fun stuff we had sitting around in the labs. To our surprise, there were a quite a few containers of chemicals that were classified by DOT as “1.1. Mass Explosion Hazard”.

It was easy for us to see where these chemicals were and who owned them, so we just sent the owners a list of the explosive chemicals in their lab, asking, “Did you know this is explosive? Do you still need it? Because if not, we’ll get rid of it for you.”

Many replied, “Really? Please, come get it out of here!” For those who wanted to keep the chemicals, we asked them to send us a Hazard Control Plan explaining how they were storing and managing the risks of handling the chemicals. Some researchers weren’t aware that they even owned these items, and they were very thankful for the notification and assistance.

This project started some good conversations and bolstered our department’s reputation as a supportive and caring partner in research safety. A program like chemical inventory can easily be seen as just another administrative compliance hassle if it’s not put to good use by both the researchers and the safety professionals. Tools that let us to track, search, and communicate better, give us the power to educate and assist people more effectively. The Penn EHRS Lab Safety group likes to routinely ask the simple question, “Are we helping?” When we know that we can get the right information to the right people at the right time, we can be confident that we are.

Kimi Brown, NRCC-CHO, CSP, ARM
Sr. Lab Safety Specialist/Chemical Hygiene Officer
University of Pennsylvania