It Only Takes a Second

Shortly after Christmas during the holiday break, Elise, a relatively new graduate student in Professor X’s group, with experience in “scale-up process safety” attempts to carry out a chemical reaction known by the greater research community to be dangerous as the reagent required can catch fire spontaneously upon contact with air. Specialized training is required to handle this reagent properly. Available to supervise Elise are two postdoctoral students both of whom have limited proficiency in English. Elise, wearing a sweater, dons safety goggles and nitrile gloves and eager to prove her worth, sets about to transfer two ounces of the reagent from one sealed container to another using a plastic syringe…

As a group, discuss each of the following questions:

1. As a new graduate student working in a new research environment and performing an unfamiliar procedure, are there any things that you think Elise should think about, plan for, or do before attempting to carry out this experiment?

2. Reading the above scenario, in light of your answers to question 1, do you think that Elise has adequately covered all her bases? What, if any, problems do you see here?

3. Would your concerns change if Elise were a postdoctoral student? An undergraduate student? A high school student?

Basis for the Case

Regrettably this story ended quite tragically for this talented young researcher. In the process of attempting to transfer 2-oz of t-butyl lithium, the plunger came out of the plastic syringe, splashing the young researcher’s gloves and sweater with the reagent, which burst into flames. The died 18-days later of second and third degree burns over forty-percent of her body. Five months later, the California division of the Occupational Safety and Health Admiinistration (OSHA) fined UCLA for 3 “serious” violations of workplace safety laws finding that the university had not properly addressed previous outstanding safety violations in that research group, that student had not been adequately trained and that she was not wearing the appropriate protective clothing (flame resistant lab coat) at the time of the fatal incident.

K. Christensen. (2009) Los Angeles Times May 5. “State Fines UCLA in Fatal Lab Fire.” Avail. URL:,0,6665233.story
Mitch. (2009) “Tert-Butyllithium Claims Fellow Chemist at UCLA.” Avail. URL: