Opinion guest column

MIT’s lack of safety provisions nearly left me dead. But graduate workers are not disposable!

We demand health and safety protections in our union contract now!

As a graduate worker in Chemical Engineering, I work on the exciting process of designing and synthesizing new zeolite catalysts to improve sustainable plastic processing. Coming from an undergraduate lab that worked with zeolites, I thought I knew what to expect when I first started out. However, over the years at MIT working with countless chemical and physical hazards in my lab, I have come to learn first hand how MIT systematically neglects graduate worker health and safety. This all came to a head when I found myself in an ambulance after a chemical exposure, unsure if I would live or die.

When I began my PhD project on zeolite synthesis, I knew that I would have to use hydrofluoric acid (HF), since it’s the only chemical able to clean zeolite residue — basically glass — out of our synthesis reactor liners. HF is notoriously dangerous. It goes straight through skin and is volatile enough to be inhaled. HF seeks out and attacks calcium sources in the body and can dissolve bones, cause necrosis, and stop the heart. To make matters worse, symptoms from an HF exposure can take hours to appear, at which point it may be too late for treatment.

On day one of my research, I was shocked to learn that MIT refuses to provide our lab with basic protections for working with HF, despite years of graduate workers, our PI, and our excellent environmental health and safety (EHS) coordinator doing everything they could to request adequate provisions. Rather than having access to a dedicated HF hood, which is standard practice — including in my undergraduate lab, — workers in my lab are forced to use all acids in a single hood, which leads to dangerous overcrowding, risk of spills, and unnecessary HF exposure. This single hood is also located in a high-traffic lab, meaning that everyone working in the space is at risk when anyone works with HF. Our hood space is so cramped and facilities so lacking that we don’t even have room to keep the hazardous waste solution from HF in a vented space. These dangerous conditions ultimately led to the incident that could have left me dead.

One of the weekly procedures in my work involves cleaning the zeolite synthesis liners in a big bath of HF solution inside the aforementioned cramped fume hood. Then, we typically neutralize the HF acid in a base bath inside the fume hood. Periodically, we have to empty the base bath to replenish the potassium hydroxide base that gets depleted over time as it reacts with the HF.

On the day of the incident, following protocol and believing it was just dilute potassium hydroxide, I removed the base bath from the hood while dressed in standard lab PPE — without the extra layers of HF protective gear. While dumping the bath into the waste carboy, however, I noticed clouds of vapor forming. Because it was my first time emptying the bath, I thought this could be a normal occurrence. However, when I tested the pH, I found it was acidic, implying that the “base bath” had in fact become a big tub of HF solution! I was dealing with a potentially deadly exposure to HF outside of the fume hood.

I immediately evacuated the lab and called MIT EHS for assistance. EHS helped me confirm that the HF was properly contained but didn’t ask or advise about my safety. Only after I asked did EHS instruct me to call MIT Medical to see if I should go in for urgent care for HF exposure. I was surprised. My past training and other members of my lab told me to go directly to urgent care or even call an ambulance. Nonetheless, I followed the EHS instructions.

At MIT Medical, it was clear they were not at all equipped to treat me  and didn’t know what to do. They finally decided to call an ambulance nearly three hours after my initial exposure. At the hospital, I was immediately seen by a doctor for monitoring and several tests. Chillingly, I was informed that any symptoms of HF exposure would have shown within 2 hours, well before I was sent to the ER. In other words, had symptoms started, MIT’s unprepared and delayed response could have left me dead.

I am alive today only because I was extremely lucky that the concentration of HF wasn’t higher.

Just a few days later, I started getting calls from the hospital and ambulance about paying for the bill. I had to call MIT Occupational Health and Safety and was ultimately promised that the costs would be covered under workers’ compensation. Yet, the collectors kept sending bills for months demanding payment. When I reached out again to MIT, I was bounced around between multiple people before being referred to an external adjuster. As I write this over four months after the exposure, I have received no confirmation or closure from MIT and can only assume it’s been taken care of.

At each point in this terrifying, frustrating, and near-death experience with HF, I was let down by MIT’s dangerously deficient safety provisions.

I want to be very clear: My PI and our EHS coordinator have done everything they can. Our EHS coordinator goes above and beyond to keep us as safe as possible given the constraints of what limited resources MIT provides to EHS. The problem is not with EHS, but rather with MIT systematically refusing to adequately fund and support EHS in carrying out its safety work. As it stands, EHS doesn’t have the power or resources to install a fume hood.

Indeed, my incident is not isolated but reflects a systematic failure by MIT to provide even basic workplace safety measures — despite the fact that grad workers work with cancer-causing and reproductive toxins, lethal and flammable chemicals, and biological hazards every single day. In the past four months within the Chemical Engineering department alone, I am one of four graduate workers who has been hospitalized from chemical exposure. MIT has not yet hired a permanent EHS coordinator for the Chemistry department after the previous one left, leaving the safety of 300 graduate workers — as well as undergraduates and postdocs — up to a precarious system of temporary EHS workers doing their best to advise, support, and provide basic safety measures without any degree of stability. Another graduate worker, hospitalized after a potentially life-threatening chemical exposure during their assigned laboratory work, was forced by MIT to use their personal insurance to cover the expenses because they had earned a fellowship and MIT thus classified the injury as personal rather than work-related — leaving the grad worker with eight months of stressful calls with debt collectors. MIT simply chooses not to provide the funding, staff, or equipment to EHS to implement basic safety precautions, and it leaves graduate workers on their own when they’re hurt on the job. MIT is cutting corners on our health and wellbeing!

But graduate workers are not disposable! My incident with HF exposure has strengthened my conviction that we urgently need our union contract provisions in order to improve and codify workplace safety. If we had our proposed contract provisions, my lab’s repeated request for additional acid hoods would have been enforceably addressed with the provision that we are guaranteed a safe work environment and facilities. With our contract proposal requiring MIT to develop and train EHS and Medical in chemical emergency response, I would have gotten emergency advice that wouldn’t have risked killing me. With our proposal to empower EHS with appropriate staffing, equipment, and training, we could establish the basis for a truly proactive approach to preventing chemical exposure incidents in the first place. In my case, experts could have evaluated the safety of our lab procedure and implemented changes to better deal with HF waste disposal. And with guaranteed workers’ compensation in a contract and a grievance procedure, I would have had a clear way to follow-up with EHS about getting bills paid.

Our union is proposing basic, common sense demands that will preempt avoidable safety incidents, keep researchers safe, and enable MIT researchers to safely carry out cutting edge research without being forced to put our lives on the line. And yet, the MIT administration is dragging its feet on coming to agreement on these basic proposals. MIT has no excuse to force us to conduct research in such unsafe conditions, and we demand that MIT affirm its commitment to graduate worker safety by agreeing to our health and safety contract proposals.

As graduate workers, we are united behind our contract demands to guarantee us equipment, supplies, facilities, and experts that ensure we have a safe workspace and assist our EHS coordinators in doing their jobs. Join us for our We are not disposable! town hall about health and safety on Tuesday, November 15, at 5:30 p.m. in 66-110, and join our Contract Action Team to help win our contract. Together, we can win the protections we deserve!

Lucas Baston is a third-year PhD candidate in Chemical Engineering and part of the MIT Graduate Student Union Contract Action Team.