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Woog's World / Soccer-smitten scientist gives lab hazards the boot

By Dan Woog

In 1958, Jim Kaufman was a sophomore at Staples High School. Students were moving into six gleaming new buildings on North Avenue. In the freshly constructed chemistry lab, teacher Clarence Berger told Kaufman and his friends not to play with two things: Bunsen burners and girls.

Earlier, when the school was on Riverside Avenue, Berger was known for his spectacular demonstration of what happens when a pound of sodium was heaved into the Saugatuck River. "Fish flew in the air," Kaufman recalls.

As a senior, Kaufman took Advanced Placement Chemistry with Berger, and physics with Nick Georgis. That year, Berger took his class to Compo Beach for an experiment on "the effects of carbonated water and soda water." In other words, they drank Cokes at Chubby Lane's concession stand.

Kaufman went on to Tufts University, where he majored in chemistry and played soccer. In the lab, doing organic synthesis, his flask imploded in a flash of light, sucking everything in. As with previous lab accidents, this made a major impression on him.

He earned a master's degree and doctorate in organic chemistry at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, surviving "a couple of fires and explosions." At the same time, he coached soccer at Clark, and was a placekicker for a semipro football team in Nashua, N.H.

After two years as a post-doc -- converting garbage into fuel oil -- Kaufman landed a job with Dow Chemical. His first workday consisted of an eight-hour talk on lab safety. "I learned more in one day about it than I had in 25 years in school," Kaufman says.

The effect? "I thought I was going to die," he says. "The work sounded so dangerous." But the message got through. Dow was interested in three things: Safety, hard work and developing patents.

Not long after, Kaufman heard that a WPI friend blew off parts of both hands in a lab accident. "He did six things I had just learned at Dow not to do," Kaufman says.

The scientist felt a need to share his lab safety knowledge with "anyone who wanted to listen, and some who didn't." He wrote a small brochure with 40 suggestions. Within months, Dow sent out 250,000 copies.

(Two weeks after joining Dow, Kaufman took unpaid time off to run The Soccer Farm -- a camp he owned. For over a decade, it served as a summer training ground for hundreds of Westport youngsters.)

In 1977, Kaufman left Dow for a professorship at Curry College. He also founded the men's and women's soccer programs. "I coached chemistry and taught soccer," he jokes.

At Curry, too, he started the Lab Safety Institute. In 35 years it's trained over 100,000 scientists and science educators. They come from more than 100 countries, and over 130 types of labs. Elementary school, forensics, bio-tech -- if there's a scientific laboratory in the world, chances are Kaufman knows every danger lurking there. And how to prevent any catastrophe in it.

The LSI has distributed -- free -- more than 4 million copies of its lab safety guidelines. They're in 10 languages. The most recent is Persian. In the works: Translations into Bengali, Hindi, Russian and Japanese. Read Full Article 

So what is the current state of lab safety? In the 1970s, Kaufman says, it was "abominable." Unfortunately, little has changed -- particularly in schools and colleges.

He describes a litany of gruesome accidents: Deaths, dismemberments, a woman at Dartmouth who spilled just one drop of a chemical on her hand wearing the wrong glove, and ...

That school, and others like UCLA and Texas Tech, called the LSI for help after disasters. (One school requested "open heart surgery" on its lab-safety program.) "We prefer to be called in before accidents happen," Kaufman notes. The LSI website's "Memorial Wall" includes the names of more than 400 students and scientists who died in laboratories.

Several years ago, Kaufman returned to Westport. He trained middle and high school teachers in lab safety techniques, and offered suggestions for improving procedures.

"We believe that if science teachers spent more time talking about life's hazards, they can change how science is taught," Kaufman says. "And that benefits everyone."

His is the rare kind of science work where success cannot be quantified or measured. But Kaufman says two people called to thank LSI because they knew what to do when their hair caught on fire. "So there are rewards," he laughs.

LSI's work is not all about gloom and doom. The institute's newest project is a contest. They're seeking sponsors for a national award, honoring universities with the best lab safety practices.

Jim Kaufman is, first, a scientist. But he's also a soccer coach. He knows the importance of winning. On the field, or in the game of life.

Dan Woog can be reached at: dwoog@optonline.net.

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