Monday, April 4, 2011

Safety in the lab

We had our first safety inspection, and had only minor violations (yay!). I am a big fan of surprise inspections, since I am much more worried that someone else's stupidity will hurt me than that I/my lab is in violation of the rules. I share lab space with another group, and the difference in attitudes towards safety has created more friction than anything else. I sometime envy my theoretician colleagues who don't need to worry about these issues.

Safety has always been an important lab issue for me, even though neither National Labs nor academia really seem to take it very seriously. In my own labs, I emphasize the importance of reading MSDSs, not working alone, using proper protection, and labeling everything (which are the absolute minimum required to maintain a safe workplace). Having witnessed a number of potentially horrific lab accidents (my worst four: HF spill to the hand, vacuum line explosion, 600 V across the chest while standing on a ladder, CO gas inhalation), I am ready and willing to pull students from the lab if they are a danger to themselves and others.

As a professor, I am ultimately responsible for anything that happens in my lab. This makes me nervous at times, since my students are trained adults who make their own decisions (even if they are dangerous ones). I would be really upset if something happened in my lab, of course, but I would also be really upset if my lab were not in compliance with University rules and I was fined. I try to get my group to make good safety decisions. We have a lab safety officer who checks for rules compliance periodically. We discuss any new safety issues at least once a month in group meeting. I have augmented the standard (inadequate in my opinion) University safety training with additional material on my own. I tell my students to keep in mind that they hold the safety of anyone walking in the lab in their hands. I don't let undergrads work in the lab alone (they have no keys). I also talk about each of the lab accidents I witnessed to emphasize the importance of personal responsibility in maintaining safety.

When the HF accident occurred, there was no calcium gluconate available in the lab, even though anyone working with HF should have it. The medics had no idea what to do, and the accident victim was shuttled around local hospitals until someone finally took responsibility for treatment because none of the ERs knew what to do for HF exposure. Fortunately, the exposed student immediately ran for a sink and jammed their hand under the flowing water until the medics arrived. Luckily, there were "only" surface burns going down the arm (in the direction of the rinse water), because it could have been much worse. When the vacuum line blew, everyone in the vicinity had safety glasses on. Even though there were cuts to the face, no one got glass in the eye. When the high voltage incident and CO inhalation occurred, the accident victims were not working alone--someone heard the noise/saw the accident and was able to help right away. I think adding a personal touch helps make lab accidents real, but I do wish I didn't have so many personal experiences.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I take safety pretty seriously too, I'm glad I'm not the only one. :)

I had a labmate who got her very long hair stuck in motor gears once. She couldn't reach the on-off switch for some reason, and the only other person in the room was wearing headphones. I think she finally managed to get his attention (and escape a scalping) by throwing stuff at him. Not good.

spinsandorbitals said...

I'm always shocked by how some people go through undergraduate chemistry labs without having heard of a MSDS or read an MSDS.

In terms of lab accidents, in grad school someone somehow threw a wrench into their face and had to get stitches. Another time, a non-chemist combined methanol and a catalyst -- it caused an interesting small scene.

And HF... at National Lab, there seems to be more caution using it (regarding protective gear etc). In grad school, it was never mentioned and my adviser certainly wasn't involved in enforcing any safety measures aside from gloves. Once, I had to beg a post doc to wait before using HF until I ran across campus to get some heavy duty acid gloves and calcium gluconate gel.

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear you take safety seriously too. It all starts with the attitude of the lab head.

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the comments! Anon 1:16, I totally agree. One of the reasons things were so lax at National Lab is that it was clear management didn't care as long as no one died or got fined.

xombie said...

Wow this is serious stuff. I once did (as an intern) a separation of HF, Pyridine and water - azeotropic, by the way. It was so scary that I had to enlist a technician to instruct. I guess a PhD student will have to do it himself. Fascinating. I hope the HF kid is fine now.

prodigal academic said...

@xombie
The HF accident victim in my case turned out fine, but that was more due to luck than planning.

A somber topic these days--an undergrad at Yale was killed in an accident after hours. NEVER work alone!

Anonymous said...

I am the first anon and I just came to post a link about the student at Yale. Girls, in addition to not working alone, tie your hair back!

valfrid said...

I like this blog it tells lots more about the Ladder safety training...