Wrestling a huge green canister of highly pressurized – and potentially dangerous – helium onto a hand truck, UC Irvine chemistry major Sam Ogbunkpolo exclaims, “Oh, my gosh, this is harder than I thought!”
Containing 2,600 pounds per square inch, the cylinder requires extreme care. He and fellow undergraduates manage to truss the heavy metal tube with chains and canvas belting, then slowly roll it across a Rowland Hall laboratory to its intended destination.
Meanwhile, on the loading dock out back, other students unleash fire extinguishers on controlled propane flames. At another station, they wince when shown photos of grisly foot and eye chemical burns. They’re learning the basics of dealing safely with the toxic, corrosive, flammable, combustible and otherwise hazardous materials that are the stuff of their study.
“Chemists are the bravest people in academia; they’re fearless,” says Rama Singh, UCI Environmental Health & Safety coordinator for the School of Physical Sciences, who led the training with the help of colleagues David Melitz, Rebecca Lally, Angela Geissbuhler, Alan Sahussanun and Alvin Samala.
That fearlessness sometimes unnerves him and others responsible for ensuring campus safety. Graduate students have long been taught how to quickly shower, call for help, mop up spills and handle other dangerous situations. But in the past year, UCI has also begun to train undergraduate chemistry majors as part of an upper-level lab class.
“I think it’s a great idea. It’s important,” says Ogbunkpolo. “It’s good to be mindful of what we’re using. If you have respect for the materials, then you’ll be okay.”
The juniors and seniors learn to comprehend detailed material safety data sheets and get hours of hands-on experience with hazards and how to avoid them. The laboratory deaths of researchers at UCLA and Dartmouth University in recent years are discussed.
Practical advice, no-nos and musts are reviewed: Get help – two heads are better than one. Realize that accidents do happen, and be prepared. Flip-flops and shorts are bad ideas; long pants, lab coats and goggles are required. Gloves alone are not enough; the right kind need to be selected for the material being manipulated.
“The most important rule is: If you are at risk, leave. Your safety is more important to us than any of our buildings,” says Sahussanun, a fire prevention specialist with EH&S. “But if you feel you can handle it, it’s good to know how to deal with a situation.”
The scare talk doesn’t dissuade the students, many of whom say they enjoy working with chemicals precisely because of the exciting reactions.
“This is a great old time,” says chemistry club president Kristopher Barr after successfully extinguishing the roaring propane flames. True to his student-leader role, the senior is dutifully dressed in long pants and a white lab coat.
At the end of the long afternoon, the students get to simulate a lab accident and emergency response by “contaminating” chemistry professor William Evans head to toe with whipped cream and then drenching him under a safety shower.
“I wait for this all year,” says one graduate teaching assistant who gleefully helps out.
Evans takes the soaking good-naturedly. “We’re fortunate at UCI to have such a great safety team,” he says. “Their willingness to make this extra effort made this training possible.”