College faces safety-violation fine

by Erin Loback | 8/20/97 5:00am

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed levying a $13,500 fine against the College for violating safety laws following an inquiry into the death of Chemistry Professor Karen Wetterhahn earlier this summer.

Wetterhahn died in June from acute mercury poisoning after being exposed to dimethyl mercury in Burke Laboratory in August of 1996. Her blood had a mercury concentration 80 times what is considered lethal.

Wetterhahn was studying the toxic effects of mercury on human cells when she spilled a few drops on her latex gloves.

OSHA Area Director David May said OSHA issued three violations to the College for inadequately training employees about the limitations of personal protection, inappropriate selection of gloves and its deficient chemical hygiene plan.

"OSHA's concerns with the gloves were that latex gloves were used to handle organic chemicals and solvents," May said.

"There is a constant trade-off between manual dexterity and protection," College Director of Environmental Health and Safety Michael Blayney said. He said Wetterhahn was transporting dimethyl mercury from one small container to another when she spilled the toxic metal, so she was wearing latex gloves for ease of movement.

He said the College now knows a lot more about dimethyl mercury's ability to pass through latex gloves than it knew a year ago, and laboratory training workshops this summer emphasized glove safety and provided permeation data for different types of gloves.

"The College wants to do everything to ensure safety," College President James Freedman said. "We certainly are going to respond to the suggestions from OSHA."

But Pharmacology and Toxicology Professor Aaron Barchowsky said he thinks the College has made an extreme effort in the last five years to improve lab safety and increase awareness about toxic chemicals.

Barchowsky, who worked with Wetterhahn on unrelated research of the toxic metals chromium and arsenic, said safety procedures used in that research followed regulations, and the lab where they worked had several types of gloves to address various levels of safety.

"The College has always been very good with working with biological safety and glove issues," he said.

College laboratories "are now in compliance with all recommended guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services," Barchowsky said. "It would be very difficult to do anything more."

Blayney said the College's response to OSHA's allegations will be to double efforts in training, especially training regarding chemical-resistant gloves.

He said latex gloves in laboratories now carry a brightly colored label which warns they are not suitable for handling hazardous chemicals. Latex gloves have many uses in laboratories, but in cases where direct contact with hazardous chemicals is potential, more protection is necessary, Blayney said.

The College is looking to develop an effective procedure for internal peer review by setting up a chemical safety committee that would decide which research projects require additional safety precautions, he said.

In addition to promoting safety awareness on campus, Blayney said the College has a responsibility to inform other research institutions about what it has learned through Wetterhahn's death.

"We want to take an otherwise tragic situation and do the best that we can do in response," he said.

According to May, OSHA began investigating the College on April 10 because of a referral from the New Hampshire Department of Public Health. He said the inspection ended on July 16.

Blayney said OSHA and the College do not have a contentious relationship, and the College will "defer to them and do the right thing." He said he plans to send updates to OSHA on how the College is ensuring safety in its laboratories.

OSHA, a regulatory agency under the Department of Labor, has enforced safety rules and regulations for laboratories since the early 1990s, according to Blayney.

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