Natural Gas Leak Emergency? by Harry J. Oster, Fire/Life Safety Specialist

In light of a recent major natural gas leak in NYC, the following are reminders of how to recognize gas and what to do in the event you smell, see, hear or are informed of a natural gas leak at work or at home.

Signatures of a leak:  a distinctive odor, similar to sulfur or rotten eggs; seeing a white cloud, mist or fog; bubbles pushing out of standing water, or hearing a roaring, hissing or whistling sound.  Note, natural gas is actually colorless and odorless.  A harmless substance called “mercaptan,” which has an odor similar to rotten eggs, is added to the natural gas to so it is quickly recognizable in the event of a leak.

Actions to take: immediately turn off all ignition sources, if safe to do so. If the odor is faint, try locating the source of the leak. If a valve is suspected, ensure the handle is turned off completely; handle valves should be perpendicular to their piping (Fig. 1). Although labs typically have adequate air exchange rates, open any windows or doors and if a fume hood is present, ensure the sash is at the proper height of 12 – 18 inches to help dissipate the odor. If the odor is strong, immediately notify other persons in the lab or area and evacuate. In any event, DO NOT ignite any flame-producing device (match, lighter, burner, etc.), turn on any appliance, room lights or use the telephone with a gas odor present.

Notify: immediately call Public Safety and Facilities Operations to report the gas leak.

In the event of any emergency, personnel are asked that when instructed to take action, including evacuation, either by way of voice announcement, Public Safety /Fire Safety Staff instruction, or from an electronic communication, to please do so immediately.  Please also inform all in the immediate area who may have not heard the instructions of the proper actions to take.

Fig.1 pipe


Spotlight on Safety

Spotlight on Safety, a new SafetyMatters item, will feature a member of the Columbia University community sharing their perspective on safety. Professor Gerard Parkin, current Chairperson of the Department of Chemistry Safety Committee and member of the University’s Environmental Management System Research Working Group, shares his insights on safety in this inaugural feature.  Several quotes from Professor Parkin’s video are highlighted below and the full video can be viewed @   
SM: Based on your experience, what is the most important safety advice you can offer?

Professor Parkin:  “Ask an experienced person before conducting an experiment. Don’t let pride get in the way. Don’t be afarid to ask someone in the lab before you do the experiment, especially if it relates to safety.

“Find out as much as you can about what you are going to do, before doing it, by asking experienced people for their advice. Be completely vigilant about what you are doing. Pay attention to what is going on around you, and make sure that others are also being safe. The culture in the lab has to be one in which people are willing to ask and answer safety questions of this type without there being any judgment.”

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