Stop, drop and roll

On February 19th this year I picked up my Globe and Mail from the doorstep and saw on the front page a horrendous image of a man desperately trying to protect his face with his hands as flames encircle his neck. You can see that the initial burns were just small sparks on his jacket (which must have been very flammable). The flames flared upwards from these sparks toward his head. As soon as he realised that the sparks were on him, he should have stopped, dropped and rolled, so that he had his body on top of the burning jacket to smother the flames. This way he might have ended up with burn holes on his jacket, but as it was he was probably severely injured or, quite possibly, he could have died.

Shortly after this I came across a report about the death of Sheri Sangji, a research assistant at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)1. Sheri was in a lab working with a pentane solution of tert-butyllithium, which is pyrophoric. The top of the syringe she was using appears to have come out and the contents spilled out onto her gloves and sweatshirt, which started to burn. She started to run away from her station, and, as it so happened, away from the emergency shower. A post-doc who was working in the same lab tried to wrap a lab coat around her, but that just started to burn too. Someone called 911, and when the emergency services personnel arrived they managed to get her under the shower. Sadly, she died later in hospital from the extensive burns to her body.

There are so many things in this account that make me shudder. For example, the MSDS for tert-butyllithium2 recommends using rubber gloves and clothes, however Sheri was wearing nitrile gloves and a synthetic sweatshirt, both of which were flammable: she wasn’t wearing a lab coat. The postdoc wrapped a lab coat around her, but this was actually the WRONG thing to do, not only because the coat was itself flammable, but also because wrapping anything (even a fire blanket) around an upright person in this situation merely funnels the flames onto their face. The RIGHT thing to do (as unlikely and difficult as it might seem) would have been to force the burning student to the ground, roll her or put a fire blanket on top of her, and then drag her to the safety shower.

Most of the reports I have seen about this case have concentrated on the lawsuits against UCLA and Sheri’s supervisor (the trial against the supervisor is still ongoing as I write this).3 The court cases have focussed on the contraventions to Health and Safety regulations and, in particular, lack of training for Sheri in the correct procedures for handling tert-butyllithium. These are, of course, important, because getting them right should mean that future accidents are avoided, but there seems to have been little discussion about what could or should have happened once a fire like this has started.

For chemistry students at the high school level, it is not so much the details of the experiment or the court cases that are important: it is, of course, to STOP, DROP and ROLL if your clothes catch fire, whether you're in the lab or outside it. You also need to remember that flames always go upwards, so if you meet a fire you should move downwards out of the path of flames. The more students hear this the more likely they are to respond appropriately in an emergency — and that may ultimately save lives. Let’s start the training NOW!