The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention of fire related incidents. The have recently pitched a set of regulations as NFPA 400 pertaining to the storage of hazardous materials. The comment period is long over and soon the rules will be issued as a published document.  While the NFPA is not a regulating body, their rules are widely adopted by government organizations and promulgated.

If you have not taken the chance to review some of these documents, it is well worth your time as a chemical professional to do so. Why? Because the practice of chemistry is being dramatically necked-down in terms of the kinds of chemistry that can be practiced and the manner in which materials are stored. Not only is your local fire marshal packing a stack of NFPA based fire codes, but a whole host of federal regulators are armed with regulations from Homeland Security, EPA (i.e., TSCA), DOT, REACH, and an alphabet soup of regulatory coverage aimed at every conceivable substance.

Organizations that oversee chemical operations include the chemical industry, hospitals, agriculture, mining, and academia. All organizations are under the obligation to provide a safe workplace for the employees. It makes sense to minimize employee exposure to risk. But the web of applicable regulations for any given chemical operation is expanding by the day.

Not only is an organization obliged to conduct business in compliance, but quite often there is the requirement of self-reporting of noncompliance. An organization finding itself out of compliance is an organization in need of legal representation. The nuances relating to most any kind of regulation are such that your average company president will generally be unwilling to settle the malfeasance with the regulatory agency without the help of an attorney. This is the point where a jet of cash starts flying out of the company coffers.

So, the question of the effect on academic chemistry arises.  Academic chemistry departments are seeing increased coverage under the regulatory umbrella as well. Should academic research labs have some sort of dispensation given the nature of the activity? Given that OSHA regulations may not be applicable to students, academic labs are already under somewhat less scrutiny. More to the point, how much government intrusion should researchers accept in relation to the kinds of chemicals they work with and store and the kinds of risks that are taken during research?

This is important for a very good reason. The issuance of proposed rules by organizations like NFPA results in regulatory pressures that eventually find their way to individual researchers. But the researchers don’t hear about it directly from NFPA. The University Health and Safety department hears about the regulations (or guidelines) and they apply requirements on chemistry departments. Faculty being faculty, they’ll perform a gritching ritual and eventually comply.

Generally, the arrival of new regulations results in new constraints. The end result is that the department has to spend more to operate the labs and students receive less experience with interesting chemistry. This whole unfortunate trend of increasing government oversight of all things chemical will eventually neuter US chemical education and industry leaving a bland and uncompetitive culture averse to risk.

I hate to be critical of fire safety people. But I also hate to see chemical education and research hamstrung by well intended parties who have devised highly detailed and extensive rules that will seep into every aspect of the chemical sciences. I am aware of absolutely no pushback of any kind when it comes to this matter.