Laboratory Safety

Joan Marie Shields jshields at
Thu Oct 16 10:32:18 EST 1997

Karl Roberts <kr1 at PGSTUMAIL.PG.CC.MD.US> wrote:
>	Very interesting perspective. You do have some good points to
>make, but the issue is not perception with regards to laboratory safety.
>I do agree, conditions in the past were much more hazardous than they are
>today, but it is our responsibility as instructors to maintain a safe
>working environment and make our students aware of safety considerations
>both for themselves and their fellows.  I do not advocate forcing
>unnecessary precaution, but I do stress that an awareness of potential
>hazards coupled with good, sound preventive antiseptic and aseptic
>technique is important, to health and well-being.  Thanks for your

Before coming to graduate school I worked as a research technician for
8 years.  For the last three I managed a lab and, in the course of this, 
trained a number of undergraduates to do both research and basic lab
things (pouring plates, making media, making fly food, etc).  The first
thing I told (and tell since I have a couple of undergrads helping me now)
is that my first concern for them is their safety.  I try to teach them
good lab safety through giving them knowledge about what they are working 
with and impressing upon them that they should make certain practices
second nature: i.e., gloves, safety glasses, no mouth pipetting, focus,
knowing where they are in a procedure, and most importantly respect for
the materials they are handling.  

A couple of years ago an incident occurred - it's stuck in my head as a 
good example of this.  There was a new graduate student in the lab and 
she was unaware of a few of our house rules.  One of them was that undergrads
do not make up polyacrylamide.  My boss and I felt it was too dangerous a
task for someone with little experience.  I was working at my bench and
happened to turn around since I saw one of my undergrads was working in 
the hood.  She had on a face mask and gloves and a coat - I also saw that
she was about to open a bottle of acrylamide.  I told her to stop.  She 
put the bottle down and stepped back away from the hood - no arguements or
asking why.  She trusted that I told her to stop for a good reason.  The
grad student who had told her to make up the solution started demanding
why I had told her to stop.  I explained to the grad student the lab rule
and told her to make it up herself.  When it came to my undergrads I had
one golden rule - there's me, there's my boss and then there's God.  

I also, at one time in my tech career, set up and ran a small lab (just me
in it).  I had one rule which I impressed on EVERYONE who came in (and this
included the chair of the department): keep hands in pockets and ASK before
touching ANYTHING.  I worked with non-tested human blood in that lab and 
I didn't want anyone having an accident if I could help it.

I guess what all this means is that I think lab safety is very important
BUT I think it's best maintained by teaching respect for the materials - 
not by lining the lab in foam rubber.  My students knew to ask me or someone
else if they had a question about a chemical or an instrument.  They knew
that I was looking out for their safety and they learned how to keep 
themselves safe in the lab by using their brain and common sense.

Joan Shields       jshields at
University of California - Irvine                            
School of Social Ecology   Department of Environmental Analysis and Design
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