Friday, November 2, 2012

What's the best disaster planning for a chemical laboratory?

I am sure that all of you were horrified by Hurricane Sandy and its continuing aftermath, especially the situation with the NYU medical center and the loss of all the research mice. From Derek Lowe:
...thousands of genetically engineered and/or specially bred rodents were lost from an NYU facility due to flooding. The Fishell lab appears to have lost its entire stock of 2,500 mice, representing 10 years of work. Very bad news indeed for the people whose careers were depending on these.
Here's C&EN's coverage of Hurricane Sandy and its effects on both chemical academia and the chemical industry.

I think it is worth having a conversation about whether/if it is possible to disaster plan for an academic chemical laboratory or a small chemical company.* If it's a relatively slow-moving disaster like flooding or a hurricane, one imagines that there's planning that can be done ahead of time (things like regular backups of digital data, etc.) If it's an earthquake or an alien invasion, there's not much to be done. Obviously, physical safety and security is of primary importance. (Ready.gov is a great place to start for these sorts of things.) Get your car gassed up ahead of time, etc. Board up your house, get your stuff ready to go, whatever.

But are there steps that chemists can take, if they believe their laboratory will be affected by a natural disaster or they might have to evacuate? Here's what I'm thinking about:
  • Graduate students and postdocs, in case of evacuation, make sure that your laboratory notebooks are  at hand, and that you have multiple copies of your digital data. 
  • Attempt to secure instruments (especially expensive ones!) that might be affected by the oncoming storm. For example, here's @TheModernScientist, talking about what to do with their NMRs. (I believe this chemist is in the NYC area.) 
  • I think there should be an effort to power down or decommission any obvious chemical hazards. I'm thinking about the clich├ęd THF still or what have you. 
Readers, what do you think? Am I crazy for thinking about this stuff? Do you have experience from Katrina, Midwest floods or crazy blizzards that you can share? 

*(I'm basically saying that if you work at a large company, they should have the resources to deal with this on their own; it's much less likely that you'll be like See Arr Oh, chainsawing a tree out of the boss' driveway, or whatever. Whatever relationship you have with a large corporation, it is unlikely that they'll rely on you, the individual chemist for disaster planning, except for maybe the laboratories. Correct me if I'm wrong, naturally.) 

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