Lab Disasters


Here's a little quiz - What's common to a fisherman, a logger and an airplane pilot? Can't think of a common theme? You might be surprised, but these jobs are ranked among the most dangerous jobs in the US as of 2011 (according to CNN). This is surprising in part because at first impression such jobs don't deal with clearly dangerous aspects such as the fires or violence  firefighters and police officers confront in their daily routine. Nonetheless, the combination of unpredictable and changing environmental factors along with the lack of consistent safety training (at least for fisherman and loggers) makes these jobs rise to the top of the annual fatalities statistics. Similarly, scientific research is not regarded as a dangerous occupation although the risks are there and mostly hidden from scientists' consciousnesses.

Lab Accident Stories

By all means, this post is not aimed at teaching you the regulations of safety in the lab (and it won't exempt you from taking the annual safety exam) but it will surely remind you why it is so important to maintain safety regulations:

  • The Acetone Fire @ Purdue, 2004 – A student performing recrystallization heated acetone in an erlynmeir and it blew up in the hood. Quickly a nearby bottle containing Petroleum Ether (a highly flammable solution) caught fire and the student hurried to remove it from the hood into the nearby sink trying the extinguish it without success. Quickly the fire caught up and wreak havoc the whole lab.
  • The Machine Shop Accident @ Yale, 2011 – While working in the machine shop alone and late at night, Michele Dufault, an undergraduate of 22, was caught in a lathe machine which lead to her death due to asphyxiation. Her body was found in the shop only in the following morning by colleague students.
  • Deadly Reaction Accident @ UCLA, 2008 - Sheharbano Sangji, a research assistant working at a UCLA chemistry laboratory, died from her wounds after a splash from a pyrophoric substance caught on her synthetic sweater. Although Sangji wore goggles and gloves, she wasn't wearing a lab coat.
  • Deadly Research Topic @ University of Chicago, 2009 – Prof. Malcolm Casadaban, expert in genetics and cell biology, died from the plague after being exposed to the weakened bacterium strain of the deadly Yersinia Pestis. Postmortem autopsy indicated the late prof. was suffering from a disorder leading to high levels of iron in his system. Since the weakened bacteria lacks iron-binding proteins, the high level of iron was sufficient to make any Yersinia Pestis infection event a deadly encounter.
  • Texas Tech Explosion, 2010 – A graduate student at a chemistry laboratory in Texas Tech University lost several fingers and suffered from hands and face burns after performing a scale-up synthesis with highly energetic ingredients. The student didn't consult with their PI before deciding and conducting the scale up experiment, and also wasn't wearing safety goggles.