A 23 year old female research associate/laboratory technician intended to add an (unknown) aliquot of 1.6 M t-bu-Li (in pentane) to a round bottom flask, placed in a dry ice/acetone bath. She had been employed in the lab for about 3 months. The incident occurred on Dec. 29, during the UCLA holiday shutdown between Christmas and New Years. Researchers are granted permission to work during the shut down for “critical research needs.” There were two post doctoral researchers working in the lab and the adjacent lab, with limited English proficiency.I find it especially sad that she was doing a relatively routine procedure done in hundreds of labs, and was wearing gloves and safety goggles, even if not a lab coat. This sobering incident should remind us that for all that we jest about laboratory procedures and reagents, working in a lab should be a deadly serious activity. Sometimes the monotony blurs the line between casual protocol and hellishly serious work precautions.
The principal investigator had trained the employee to slightly pressurize the bottle (an ~ 250 ml Aldrich Sure Seal container) with Argon and withdraw the desired aliquot using a 60 ml syringe, fitted with a 20 gauge needle. The PI likes to use these particular syringes because they have a tight seal. There is no evidence that the employee used this method. Speculation: she may have just tried to pull up the aliquot in the syringe. Somehow, the syringe plunger popped out or was pulled out of the syringe barrel, splashing the employee with t-bu-Li and pentane. The mixture caught fire, upon contact with air. She was wearing nitrile gloves, safety glasses and synthetic sweater. She was not wearing a lab coat. The fire ignited the gloves and the sweater.
Six feet from the fume hood was an emergency shower. When the employee’s gloves and clothing caught fire, she ran from the area away from the shower. One of the post-docs used his lab coat to smother the flames. 911 was called. UCLA Fire Dept. and emergency medical, Los Angeles City Fire, and Los Angeles County Haz Mat. The EMTs put the employee in the safety shower for gross decon and then transported her to the ER. She’s currently in the Grossman burn unit in Sherman Oaks with second degree burns on her arms and third degree burns on her hands, a total of about 40% of her body. There was very little damage to the lab. Bill has not interviewed the employee.
The wrath of lithium
Mitch alerts us to this extremely tragic story where a UCLA lab assistant has succumbed to burns caused by t-butyl lithium: