Going into the chemistry lab for the first lab class of first year, or the first session as a third year research project is pretty scary. Firstly there are rules, and the rules are not negotiations. Secondly we, via the rules, make you dress funny – what’s not to laugh at in a white coat, safety glasses or goggles, optional gloves and decent footwear. Thirdly, you have to use common sense – glassware looks the same when hot or cold; water, acid and organic solvents all look like clear liquids but you wouldn’t want some of them on your hands; and half the glassware is a funny shape so it doesn’t sit nicely on the bench like the crockery at home does. The lab, until you get used to it, is an environment that makes you uncomfortable. It should – most of the stuff in the lab, staff included, does not respond well to disrespect.
One of the biggest issues I have is with the perception of risk. I’ve done silly things in the lab that have resulted in flashes, bangs, spills, floods and odd smells – what chemist hasn’t? But largely because of a few simple acts of common sense, they have been minor incidents not disasters. I spilled sulfuric acid all over the fumehood and it dripped on my feet. Fortunately I was wearing long jeans and leather boots – so the bottom of my jeans looked like someone had cut holes in them – I wasn’t burned. I’ve dropped a glass jar full of sodium in oil. Fortunately the lab was well equipped to deal with that and many other types of spill. Reaction vessels have over pressurized, things have gone pop but no damage has been done because the risks were anticipated by me or my supervisor and minimized.
So what can you do to minimise the risks in the chemistry lab when it is new and scary. First thing is learn the rules. Safety glasses are there for a reason, lab coats are not just there for personal adornment (although they do look good), and gloves are there to protect you from the chemicals. Second thing is to follow the rules – sounds easy, doesn’t it? It isn’t. Rules regarding standard of dress are mainly concerned with making sure your body is covered well enough in case of spill or splash. Will your shoes keep the sulfuric acid out long enough for you to get them off? Are your trousers (never ever tights or leggings) thick enough to absorb the acetone or dichloromethane or hydrofluoric acid and stop it getting to your skin? Is your hair tied back, not obstructing your vision or not requiring you to flick it out the way? Remember that your hands transfer the nasty chemicals to your nice hair with every careless touch! Third thing is to have some humility and know your limitations. Never done procedure X or technique Y before? Then ask someone who has. There are always people who will help, but in return they ask that you pay attention, listen to the full explanation and do your best to recall the important information the next time.
Being in the lab takes time to get used to – but you have to put the time in!