Special Feature: Staying Well - Safety in the Lab

Credit: National Science Foundation and Argonne National Lab

As an early-career scientist or science trainee, you’ve got more important things on your mind than laboratory safety. You’ve got experiments to finish, new techniques to learn, classes to excel in, exams to pass, grants or fellowships to fund, new initiatives to get off the ground. If you’re running your own lab, chances are you’ve got a payroll to meet. You may have a family at home to support--sometimes even an extended family. Your job is stressful enough, and your hours are long enough, without spending time worrying over spill kits, eye protection, explosion-proof storage cabinets, and radioactive waste disposal. Sure, it’s important to follow guidelines and make reasonable choices, but it all needs to be kept in perspective. In some academic laboratories, a preoccupation with safety can even seem unprofessional; the most important thing is to get the work done. Right?

No, it’s not right. The attitude expressed in the paragraph above is wrong--all wrong--for all sorts of reasons. When I was in graduate school, here’s the prep I’d do for a typical experiment. First, I would clean a quartz tube with hydrofluoric acid. Then I would seal off one end of that tube--a process that involves extremely high temperatures and appalling intensities of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. I would evacuate the tube, then place in it (along with the sample I was studying) a gamma radiation source and--often-- bromine gas. Then I would seal off the other end of the quartz tube with my torch, at approximately 1600°C. I had no formal training for any of this; in fact, I figured out how to do all this myself, and I pieced together the apparatus from old equipment lying around the laboratory.

I was an outlier, I suspect, in terms of the intensity and diversity of risks I encountered daily, as well as in my lack of formal training. But just about every experimental science trainee experiences some variation on this theme: Their work entails a variety of risks in combination, they have little experience in dealing with those risks, and--much of the time--safety considerations take second place to getting the work done. And that is why, as John Borchardt reports in his contribution to this feature, accidents occur 10 to 50 times more frequently in academic labs than in industrial labs.

Here’s one way of looking at it. In other industries these days, it's routine to take basic safety precautions. In the logging industry, for example, protective clothing is ubiquitous; logging pros recognize that a chainsaw or a falling tree can kill them in an instant. It’s the weekend warrior, homeowner types--the ones who just proudly bought their first saws from a local hardware store last weekend--who are cavalier about safety. It’s the same with most other professionals, from electricians to stuntmen. It’s the amateurs who take unnecessary chances.

One of the reasons academic labs work as well as they do is their lack of structure. Individual scientists are free to explore. Institutional barriers to trying new things are minimal. But there’s a downside to that sort of informality: The academic lab is one of the few professional settings in which people with minimal training routinely do difficult and dangerous work. How many second-year physics graduate students over the years have repaired the electrical wiring in a broken vacuum pump--or even in a megavolt particle accelerator? How many people bending over UV light boxes know precisely what kind of eye and face protection they ought to be wearing? (Here’s a hint: Standard prescription eyeglasses aren’t sufficient.) How many molecular biologists take the risks presented by basic reagents--acrylamide, ethidium bromide--as seriously as they ought to? And how many of these people have had the rigorous training that would make them aware of all the risks and teach them the standard approaches to minimizing those risks? How many of them know what to do if something goes wrong?

Most institutions take safety very seriously, but that seriousness doesn’t always trickle down to the level of the laboratory. Even when it does, no institutional safety regimen can come close to guaranteeing your safety. And, of course, no feature in ScienceCareers.org can do the job--all we can really do is raise awareness. Ultimately, it’s up to you to identify and mitigate the risks--not only the risks posed by the science itself but also of spaces and equipment that have been modified by generations of professional scientists who, in the course of their jobs, double as amateur electricians and mechanics.

First, from Europe, in Keeping Safe: Some Cautionary Tales, Lynn Dicks describes some accidents, in the lab and in the field, and extracts a lesson about the importance of self-reliance.

Next, in Wear Your Safety Goggles, Jim Kling focuses on protecting your eyes because ironically eye protection--one of the most obvious and reliable safety measures a scientist can take--is too often neglected.

Finally, in Lab Safety Requires Training and Commitment, John Borchardt points out just how hard it can be to identify safety risks in the laboratory--and notes that vigilance is required if you want to keep yourself and your colleagues safe.

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