There has been a lot of chatter between chemistry blogs about an explosion that occurred earlier this year at Texas Tech (C&EN, In The Pipeline, ChemBark*). In brief, a graduate student was injured while grinding a large quantity (reports say 5 g) of nickel hydrazine perchlorate, a compound quite likely to be shock sensitive. The student was seriously injured, losing several fingers. It could have been substantially worse, and while I’d hesitate to call an injury like that lucky, in some ways it is. Luck in the sense of being alive. The student seems to have broken several protocols in the lab concerned with handling such compounds including those dictating the maximum scale on which a compound like this should be synthesised, and not using appropriate equipment such as a blast shield or even wearing safety glasses.
Lab safety is a bit of a high wire act. On one hand there is a legal and moral obligation to provide a safe working environment for all people who have to use the lab – students, demonstrators, academics, postdocs, technicians etc. On the other hand, over-zealous enforcement of safety rules help no one and may also encourage a culture of flouting them. All chemicals should be handled with caution and given the respect they deserve, as should many items of lab equipment.
How do you adequately convey lab safety rules in a manner that asks people to respect and follow them, but without instilling a fear of lab procedures in them? This is particularly important in teaching laboratories – students need to work safely, but also need to develop their skills and confidence. Of course, we pick the experiments in teaching laboratories very carefully, carry out the necessary risk assessments, and enforce the necessary safety measures. Assessing chemical risk is not something that can be taught. It comes from experience and a liberal dose of common sense.
Many students believe that gloves will protect them from all lab chemicals. They put a pair on at the start of a session, and wander around for 2 or 3 hours seemingly unaware that their hands are covered in everything they’ve used in the lab. There seems to be less need for caution when pouring liquids if you have gloves on. There is also less need for caution when handling solids with gloves on – I’ve seen people pick up fairly nasty solid chemicals in their gloved hands rather than using a spatula. Gloves are not magic items that protect you from everything you touch in the lab. In many cases, the lack of care and attention exhibited by people wearing gloves indicates that they sometimes cause more issues than they solve. It is possible to get chemical compatibility information for any kind of gloves. This tells you what kinds of chemicals they are to be used for – acids, alkali, base, specific organic solvents. Don’t forget – many gloves are manufactured to guard against biological hazards, not chemical hazards. Many are better on your dentist than on your average chemistry researcher.
What I’d like to see is a traffic light system on glove boxes – red, amber, green. Red means the glove offers very poor protection, amber means it offers reasonable protection (i.e. if you spill it on the glove, you’ve got time to get the glove off before you have a problem), green means it offers good protection over a reasonable time frame. I think this would be a simple way to convey to researchers the limitations of their equipment. (VWR already have this kind of information available, not sure if other companies do as well).
Ultimately though if the instructors in the laboratory don’t enforce appropriate use of equipment, no one benefits. Safety has to be ingrained from day one in the laboratory, but its difficult to persuade students that you’re not giving them a hard time for the hell of it, you’re giving them a hard time because one day it will matter.