Safety regulations might be a pain sometimes, especially when we have to sacrifice research time to fulfil safety obligations, but they’re for the greater good, says Haixing Li.
There are lot of horrible stories of lab accidents on the internet: researcher dies when handling tert-butyl lithium, researcher is severely injured when synthesizing energetic materials, researcher loses arm when combining hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and oxygen gases from high-pressure cylinders. The list goes on.
On the other hand, we struggle when we can’t wear shorts and sandals in summer. It’s easy to scratch an itch with gloved hands during an experiment. Not being able to take water or coffee into a lab can be infuriating at times. That list goes on, too.
Accidents might sound far away when we’re not handling lithium compounds or high pressure cylinders. Lab danger, though, is closer than you think. In my own work, I was trained to run and inspect agarose gels under UV light. I never wore goggles, and did not realize that the plastic cover on the UV light screen needed to be closed to protect the eyes and skin from the light. A dumb mistake to make in hindsight, but easy to do at the time.
It only took a few months for my eyes to get really damaged. After a trip to hospital and several visits to a specialist, I eventually learned that the cause of my eye injury was UV exposure, not chemical exposure or an infection as previously diagnosed.
Every research lab has a few potential dangers if proper precautions are not taken. The office of Environmental Health and Safety in every university is trying its best in establishing and maintaining a safe environment, and lab rules and guidelines are generally very accessible (here are mine).
What we can all do is identify and evaluate hazards in our research labs, make clear warning signs about potential harm, and take appropriate precautions when conducting the experiment. Every research lab has its own quirks, and safety situations must be evaluated individually beforehand. Also remember to pass it on when we train the next researcher who learns the experimental procedure for the first time. We, scientists, have to take care of our own wellbeing.
Here’s what we came up with to improve the safety of my lab:
- We update our guidelines — in my case the Laboratory Assessment Tool and Chemical Hygiene Plan (LATCH) — to include safety information and precautions associated with UV equipment. Once the LATCH is updated, we have everyone carefully read and sign the updated LATCH.
- We invited safety officers from Office of Environmental Health & Safety at our university to schedule a meeting with the entire lab to review an updated LATCH and discuss general hazard identification. The safety officers also talk to us about safety concerns specific to our lab and go over the information in the LATCH in greater detail with all of us.
- The goggles and face shields that block UV light are placed at very visible locations next to the UV light source. A new warning sign was put up.
- Our entire lab had a meeting about the accident. We realized that each individual is careful about certain aspects of potential harm, but is rarely attentive to everything. To use a very simple example: the chemists know about dangerous chemicals, but not about the biological hazards.
We taught each other our own understanding of the potential dangers in our lab in the hope we’d all learn something new. We also agreed that we would be extra careful in emphasizing the importance of safety when training new lab members. A heartfelt conversation over the accident and safety issues really raised awareness.
Eventually, my eyes healed before leaving permanent damage. Safety might be boring at times, but scientists must learn to see the inherent dangers in their work.