On a December afternoon in 2008, within the research laboratories of the University of California (UC) in Los Angeles, a routine procedure went terribly wrong.
As a young technician transferred a small amount of tert-butyllithium from one container to another, the plastic syringe she was using came apart in her hands. The chemical—a highly reactive, “pyrophoric” compound—burst into flames. Severe burns covered the lab assistant’s body. She died of her injuries 18 days later.
An investigation into the incident yielded a critical detail: At the time of the fire, the lab assistant wasn’t wearing any protective clothing. If it hoped to avoid similar tragedies in the future, UC would need to institute a comprehensive program to purchase, distribute and encourage the correct use of personal protective equipment (PPE), especially flame-resistant (FR) garments.
A system-wide challenge
Compared to industrial settings, academic research labs pose unique challenges to worker safety. Industrial labs are highly regulated. Academic labs aren’t. Industrial labs tend to have stable, long-term workforces and established (and regularly reinforced) safety protocols. Academic labs don’t. In the case of the UC system, there was another compounding factor: size. The UC research program employs thousands on 10 campuses statewide and at the renowned Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories. Subjects under study at UC facilities range from molecular chemistry to primate health, genetic modification to nuclear physics. In such a diverse, geographically distributed program with so many “moving parts,” potential hazards are legion. A one-size-fits-all approach was simply out of the question.
For help, UC turned to the San Jose, California-based consulting company Environmental & Occupational Risk Management, Inc. (EORM), which recommended that the school get a handle on the challenge by administering the Laboratory Hazard Assessment Tool (LHAT) to its research employees. The online survey was designed to identify the nature and scope of the hazards present at each research lab within the UC system.
Armed with a better picture of the everyday risks its employees faced, UC was now well-positioned to begin evaluating the protective attributes of various garment types and fabrics from untreated cotton and untreated cotton/polyester blends to chemically treated fabrics, and finally, garments made from inherent FR fibers. UC had stringent criteria, and rightly so. Apart from the university system’s pressing safety concerns, the capital outlay for a PPE program of this size would be several million dollars, so choosing the right garments from the start was crucial. Garment purchasing considerations included:
• Predicted burn injury
• Reactivity to oxidizers
• Vulnerability to particle shedding
• Value in use
At first glance, the comparatively modest initial cost of garments manufactured from chemically treated fabrics made them an attractive choice. But the UC evaluators also understood that over time, the flame resistance of such fabrics is compromised by repeated exposure to some chemicals, including the bleach (sodium hypochlorite) commonly used in commercial laundry operations. Worse still, in some burn tests, chemically treated FR fabrics have shown a tendency to “activate” when exposed to flames in excess of minimum standard required durations. Activation of the chemical treatment generates additional heat, potentially adding to burn injury.
A clear winner
After exhaustive trials, the UC evaluators selected the only garments that met their high standards: those made from DuPont™ Nomex® fiber. When exposed to extreme heat, Nomex® fiber reacts in a unique manner. It captures energy rather than conducting it to the wearer’s skin, protecting the victim and providing them valuable escape time. And unlike post-treated garments, the heat- and flame-resistant properties of Nomex® are built in--they can’t be washed out or worn away. The UC evaluators were also impressed with the fit, light weight and breathability offered by protective garments made from Nomex®, key factors in their likelihood of being worn.
Back on campus
UC may have found its winning PPE, but getting it into its employees’ hands wouldn’t be easy. After all, UC’s new PPE policy required the distribution of protective garments to all faculty, staff, volunteers and visiting scholars who work in UC-affiliated labs, a team of thousands spread throughout the nation’s third-largest state.
The answer? A series of “bulk distribution” events on the individual campuses. Promoted through email, social media and on-campus posters and announcements, the gatherings offered research staff at each UC campus the chance to meet in one place to be individually fitted with their new, improved PPE. Employees received equipment vouchers based on their lab’s original LHAT assessments. At minimum, most received two FR lab coats. The UC system also made a variety of other PPE, such as face shields, splash goggles and FR aprons available by request. Along with their PPE distribution programs, the individual universities have since implemented rigorous training on proper use of their new PPE. For convenience sake, the schools even launder their employees’ PPE on request.
Now in its second year, the UC PPE program has all the marks of an institutional success. While there’s no way to undo the tragic event that prompted the University of California to renew its commitment to laboratory safety, by investing in testing, training and garments made from DuPont™ Nomex®, the school has gone a long way toward ensuring that history never repeats itself.