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8 Stories of Lab Safety Gone Wrong

8 Stories of Lab Safety Gone Wrong content piece image

Laboratories are hazardous places. Handling dangerous chemicals and performing experiments puts scientists and their colleagues at risk of injury or even death.

Lab safety has come a long way over the years and common-sense safety requirements minimize risks to lab users, even so accidents do still happen.

We spoke with a number of scientific groups to hear their stories of scientists tempting fate and narrowly escaping the jaws of death, and we present the top 8 in this list.

1. Smoking Whilst Handling Ether

An anonymous submission, "During my time as an ERASMUS student in Portugal I was amazed by the lack of safety precautions in the chemistry lab I was working in. In particular, there was one PhD student who enjoyed smoking in the lab. I watched part in amazement, part in horror as, smoking whilst working with ether, he set himself on fire. He was quickly extinguished, only to reignite a further three times. Luckily, he escaped unscathed and smoking in the lab was quietly banned shortly after."

2. Methylated Spirits Vs Bunsen Burner

Caroline Nash, Biomedical Scientist at the Leicester Royal Infirmary, UK,  tells us, “A chap in our lab spilled methylated spirits near a Bunsen burner, so it naturally caught fire. He threw his lab coat on the fire to put it out, which promptly caught fire as well.”

3. Blast Blows Out Basement Lab

Mike Stephens, the recently-retired Director of Health and Safety for Medical Research Council (MRC), UK, recalls some stories from his career working within Academia, Industry and for the MRC.  “A scientist was working with Peroxy-sulphuric acid, which is a highly unstable mixture made by mixing sulphuric acid and hydrogen peroxide in an ice bath. He was doing this with low volumes in a containment hood, behind a blast screen.  I’m not sure what happened exactly, but we were working in the building above and there was this almighty ‘BANG!’ which set the fire alarms off and we had to evacuate the building. The scientist and his grad student emerged from the bunker they had been working in, looking shell-shocked but unhurt. In fact, the only injury sustained from the experience happened when the scientist sat down on a low-wall and promptly jumped up in pain as he had sat on a shard of glass from a broken beer glass from the student bar next-door, cutting his buttock. Further inspection of the room, however, revealed the blast screen was peppered with debris and no doubt saved his and his student’s lives.

4. Ether Fireball Sinks Lab

Mike also told us about a not-so-bright postgraduate student that emptied the last dregs of his ether bottle down the catch-pot sink on his bench. The plumbing was such that all the sinks on the bench were connected and drained into the main drain under the sink at the end of the bench. Having emptied the ether in the catch-pot sink furthest away from the main sink at the end of the bench, the ether had moved down the entire length of the drain pipe. When another scientist in the lab lit a Bunsen and tossed their splint in the big sink to extinguish the flame, a fireball promptly erupted from the plug hole and travelled along the drain pipe, erupting from all the pot sinks sequentially, all the way up the bench. 

5. Alarming Aluminum Sets Lab Ablaze

An anonymous chemist retells stories from his time as a student in the lab, “This story concerns aluminium reagents, which are very reactive particularly with water. Another student working in the lab had disposed of lithium aluminium hydride in the aluminium residues disposal tub without quenching/destroying the reagent. I had been using di-isobutyl aluminium hydride and quenched my reaction with water and filtered off the aluminium residues. I disposed of my (wet) aluminium waste without knowing there was live reagent in the waste tub. After disposing I was chatting with a colleague, next to the fumehood, and it went pop and spat out a small flame. This was in the same fumehood that contained waste solvent which is obviously highly flammable. So, we moved the tub into a separate hood, remarking upon the extraordinary heat generated in the tub. We began passing it around, showing people how hot it had become. Within minutes of placing it back and fetching some ice water to calm it down it had erupted into a fireball and consumed the fumehood, flames were licking out the bottom beneath the fumehood sash. Eight fire extinguishers later, we all learned the importance of quenching/working up and destroying reactive materials appropriately.

6. Getting Your fingers Burnt by Science

An anonymous submission tells of the trials of being a teaching assistant, "As a postgraduate helping out in undergraduate labs, it never ceased to amaze me what the scientists of tomorrow could get up to. A particular bright spark came to me to complain that his stirrer hotplate wasn’t heating so I asked him to show me. His response was to place his hand directly on the – now hot – hotplate burning himself in the progress. When I asked him 'why he did that?', he said that it didn’t get hot straightaway so thought it was broken and this was the best way to demonstrate the problem. We had to explain that touching hot things with your bare hands is not the best idea – with his hand in ice, he nodded in agreement.

7. Hectic Aseptic: Ethanol Bench Fire

Another story delivered to us anonymously is of a scientist who was smearing bacteria onto an agar plate. The plate was centered under the Bunsen burner providing the aseptic environment, to the left was a bottle of ethanol for sterilizing the scientist’s loop, and to the right a packet of Kim wipes. As the scientist picked up their loop and went to sterilize it in the ethanol they knocked the ethanol all over the bench. As they then grabbed tissues to mop up the spillage they moved their handful of tissues through the Bunsen flame on their return arc, igniting the tissue and then subsequently the ethanol, which had rapidly spread over the bench and was now pouring onto the floor. They next tried to stamp out the flames, but were wearing paper over-shoes which also caught fire, melting the scientist’s shoes.  

8. Best in Class: Thermite Demonstration leads to Magnesium Fire

A story from an ex high-school science teacher who wishes to remain anonymous gives us an insight into the teaching practices of science teacher’s in the UK in the 1970’s, “I was demonstrating the thermite reaction in the lab.” Thermite, a mixture of iron (III) oxide and aluminium in powder form ignited by a large amount of heat, burns at 2,500ᵒC. “A spark landed in an open tin of magnesium powder, which should have been sealed, and subsequently caught fire. I put the tin in a sink, which turned out to be made of plastic, and so the tin burnt straight through the bottom of the sink. I tried to put the fire out with a fire blanket, as there was no bucket of sand nearby, but that also caught fire. The situation was made worse by the fact that the demo sink was by the fire exit, blocking the students’ exit from the room. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, but the episode did lead to the whole school reviewing its safety procedures, an extra fire door being added to science labs, and all plastic sinks being replaced with ceramic ones and buckets of sand were included in every lab.”

Do you have a lab safety story you think we should feature? Send it to editors@technologynetworks.com