Stories from a Chemical Hygiene Officer

A Guest Post today from chubscrubbins.

First, my background. I am not a Chemist. I was hired as a “chemical safety specialist” to basically administer lab inspections and run the stockroom. My previous military experience as a Nuke helped me greatly when it came to getting my job. My position evolved to Chemical Hygiene Officer for the College of Science and Engineering, then to Radiation Safety Officer for the University, and eventually to a Environmental Compliance Auditor for EPA Region 6 private schools.

  1. My Scariest Moment

When a package came into the stockroom, I checked the DOT labels to determine how to open the container. It was too cumbersome to open everything in the hood, so if it had no labels I just opened it on the receiving table. On a particular day, like any other, a single package came in. No labels. I put on my nitrile gloves and opened the container. I removed a small bottle nestled in Styrofoam and immediately noticed that my glove was drenched. Annoying. It happens. I look at the bottle and I immediately lose my shit. The first word I see is Dimethylmercury. I had taken lab safety classes and was aware of the tragic death of Karen Wetterhahn. My mind was racing. My wife was pregnant and hadn’t finished grad school. What if I died and wasn’t there to raise my child? Awful thoughts ran through my head.

I took off my gloves and placed them into a secured waste container. I calmed down and walked to our most experienced Organic professor and told him what was happened. His jaw dropped and he muttered, “Fuck.” We walked to the stockroom and I showed him the container. I saw relief in his face, which then turned to anger. The substance was a standard used by the biology department for a mercury analysis machine used to determine Hg concentration in fish. I believe it was either a 1ppm or 1ppb standard. I really can’t remember. I thought he was pissed at me for overreacting, but he was really mad at the professor who ordered it. Never understood why. Either way, I left work early to be with my pregnant wife and wind down.

  1. Most Embarrassing / Saddest Thing I Witnessed.

I was actually taking Organic Chemistry Lab to improve my practical chemical knowledge. We were performing an extraction using dichloromethane. Nothing fancy. There was a real dunce in the class who had horrible lab technique. It was obvious from the first lab. The dunce went to pour his organic layer back into his sep funnel, but forgot to close the stopcock. In addition, he was doing this outside of the hood with the glassware aimed right at his crotch. After drenching his genitals with dichloromethane, he stood at his hood, too embarrassed to move. I heard him go up to the TA and say, “I think I messed up.” By this point, his penis had started itching and burning and he was really worried. I brought him down to the stockroom and had him strip down to his boxers while he stood underneath the safety shower. I made him stand there for the whole recommended 15 minutes. Sadly, the professor in charge of the lab heard about the accident and came in and bitched him out as he was standing there in his boxers. I felt awful for the kid. He dropped the class the next day and switched majors. I don’t think he was cut out to be a chemist, but I still felt awful for how he found out.


  1. I heard a story about an undergrad at my former university that accidentally had mercury chloride form an amalgam with the gold in their wedding ring.

    Next week, they ring is back to normal and upon questioning they had it fixed by bringing it a jeweler (who I can’t imagine was told) to buffer off the ‘tarnish’.

  2. In high school, a classmate threw hot steel into a trash can filled with paper…and then proceeded to run around screaming (instead of pouring water into the trash can) when the trash can started to smoke.

  3. Damn.

    I would’ve also lost it with the first scenario. I probably would’ve headed to the sink and camped out there for ten minutes with soap and water before calling the campus emergency number.

    While the student in the orgo lab probably deserved to get chewed out—though maybe after things calmed down—the prof probably also deserved to get chewed out. If everyone knew this kid was a screw-up, he should’ve been monitored more closely and asked to leave before he did something as stupid. Leaving the stopcock open, in my mind, is not as big an offense as working outside the hood. One offense is being absent-minded, and it happens to all of us. The other is just reckless, and if you’re going to take such a chance, you’d better be sure you don’t f— up.

  4. DCM … ’cause you know the ladies love decaffeinated sperm. Ouch. And I want to add that I think it is really noble that this CHO took organic classes to increase awareness. There are too many CHO’s and Safety and Health Officers who have no working knowledge of laboratory chemicals and who are often too nervous around them to be effective in their jobs. This is a travesty.

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