Lab Safety

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.

6 Replies to “Lab Safety”

  1. Katy,

    This made for an extremely interesting read – in particular the final paragraph. I worked for some time in construction health & safety. One of the common reactions to our safety induction was along the lines of “I’ve worked in this industry for X years and nothing’s ever happened to me”! Too many people seem to assume that health & safety regulations and guidelines are there just to p*ss them off. For some people, it is something they refuse to accept – it is a culture which they ignore with pride and bravado. The message we tried to instill was that we weren’t there to hassle them, but simply to do our upmost to ensure that they got home in the same condition in which they left.

    1. @Vicky

      Yes, there is a certain element of pride in breaking rules. I’ve always felt it worked both ways however. If health and safety officers aren’t seen to be applying rules fairly, it all falls apart and people feel picked on. There is too often a ‘them and us’ culture with health and safety offices being seen as the enemy. Diplomacy and good communication go a long way but too often the fall back position is to show lab workers pictures/videos of terrible accidents that are so remote from their own working environment as to be irrelevant.

      We try with our first years to get them to think about what might occur – they might spill something on the bench, they may drop something on the floor. Are their clothes and protective equipment suitable to give them some protection if that happens? Do they know enough about the chemicals they are using to act in a suitable manner if it happens to them? There is little point in telling them about the academic who once dropped a little bit of dimethylmercury on her glove and subsequently died as it isn’t tangible to them (which is really a horrific tragedy). Its fine if they are going to use that chemical but not as a scare tactic in the lab.

  2. “Assessing chemical risk is not something that can be taught.” Really? You don’t think you can teach students to look at the hazards of the chemicals and amounts they’re working with and evaluate the reaction they’re doing to assess the risk involved in the experiment? Granted, it’s something that would have to evolve over time–walk the freshmen through it, expect the seniors to do it independently–but I would argue that it’s something that definitely can and should be taught.

    1. Sorry Jyllian – for some reason your comment got caught in the spam folder.

      I think its a chicken and egg argument. By the time our students reach their final year they should be capable of assessing risk in simple experiments, but until that point their chemical and lab knowledge may not be sophisticated enough to make those judgements and they rely on the lab staff to do preliminary assessments. We can teach them to be good at following the safety rules for each experiment, but that doesn’t teach them to critically evaluate the risk themselves. Just like some of them could never work with microgram quantities because their lab technique is too clumsy, some people don’t have it in their nature to accurately judge risk. They just can’t bring together the complex series of variables such as – quantity, risk, exposure, procedure, protective equipment available etc.
      So safety and risk assessment ends up being more prescriptive, and less independent.
      I think it is something that either develops when someone works in a lab, or it doesn’t. It isn’t something that can just be memorised in order to get a passing grade.

  3. « Your chemicals cannot harm me ; my gloves are like a shield of steel. »

    Well, actually no. We too suffer from students who think a thin layer of nitrile will protect them from all evil. One way we are thinking of getting around it is to have a practical in the middle of term that requires the calibration of UV-vis or fluorescence using something like crystal violet or rhodamine 6G. At the end of the practical, shine a black light near the students faces and see who glows. The number of guys I see touching their faces with be-gloved hands is beyond me. In the meantime, I am with the Hungarian playwright, Ferenc Molnár,

    « Don’t touch shit even with gloves on. The gloves get shitter, the shit doesn’t get any glovier. »

  4. I think I’ll use that quote in the next safety talk I have to give. Yes, that will go down really well 🙂 I’ve had a similar experience with a glowy compound myself and was amazed how untidy I was when I turned the black light on – it was everywhere.

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