Laboratory Safety

Peter Herman rpeter at nmsu.edu
Sun Oct 12 13:38:26 EST 1997

Yersinia wrote:
[some stuff snipped]
> I would never make fun of people who chose not to mouth pipette, nor
> would I stick my hands into substances like that,  HOWEVER, if I was a
> biology or chemistry lab instructor WITH THE FREEDOM TO CHOOSE HOW TO
> TEACH MY LABS (It's SCHOOL policy, not necessarily the policies of my
> individual professors, to prohibit mouth pipetting, and force us to wear
> gloves and safety goggles/glasses in chemistry labs), I would simply
> state the possibility of swallowing dangerous organisms while mouth
> pipetting and point out that some of the chemicals we are working with
> are hazardous/why this is so/what can happen if they swallow/get it on
> their skin, etc. Then I'd proceed to strongly RECOMMEND the use of
> pipetting aids in lieu of mouth pipetting, and in addition to pipetting
> aids, make gloves and goggles available to those who felt safer wearing
> them - but I would not try to FORCE anyone to use the pipetting aids or
> wear the gloves/goggles. In other words, I would make my students aware
> of any existing dangers of the experiments, and leave them to be
> responsible (or not) for their their own safety. The whole point I'd like
> to make here is that of personal responsibility and the freedom to make
> knowledgeable choices - and to take responsibility for the results of
> one's actions; in addition to lab-by-lab "Today's experiment involves..."
> descriptions of potential hazards, at the beginning of the semester, I'd
> give a "general safety speech" with handouts and have everyone sign a
> form saying that they received, read and understood this information, and
> if they chose to ignore safety procedures, they could not sue for medical
> expenses related to injuries they incurred as a result of ignoring the
> safety recommendations. Which I'm sure is one reason why my school has
> the "force everyone to use PPE" policy) But of course if I taught in a
> school whose policy was forcing students to adhere without exception to
> occasionally unnecessary safety precautions, I'd have to abide by that
> (or find another career).

While I agree with the point of view up to a point in principle, people
no longer are willing to accept responsiblity for the consequences of
their actions and, unfortunately, our court system is unwilling to make
them.   "Release" forms such as suggested above are essentially a
useless formality.  You just can't sign away your rights to sue in any
meaningfull way.  A student injured in a lab with Yersinia's policy
could sue both the university and the instructor and would most
certainly win damages.  I actually am not sure that I would disagree
with such an award.  As professors, we take responsibility for the
safety of our students and employees who, in many cases, don't have the
level of experience or professional judgement to assess the risks.  On
the other hand, I have been doing microbiology at the post graduate
level for 30 years.  I get a bit irritated when the university and OSHA
tell me about the risks of something that I know far more about than any
safety officer.  Of course, I follow the rules (even the stupid ones)
for 2 reasons; 1) to set a good example for the students in the lab and
2) to avoid paying a whooping great fine as a "willful" violator should
our department get inspected for a second time!

Any instructor who did anything other than follow the absolute letter of
federal and university policy would be toying with professional suicide
if anything went wrong in our litigeous society!  Sad to say,
professional judgement of what precautions are appropriate to what level
of risk are no longer in the hands of the people in the trenches.  Part
of it is our fault: historically, we have been sloppy in many cases.  On
the other hand, some of the rules are so stupid that they make people
scoff at the important ones too.  For example, I work with arbuscular
mycorrhizal fungi.  One of the steps in isolating spores involves a
centrifugation in 50% sucrose.  Now, since we are starting with soil,
there isn't much sense in paying top $ for ultra pure sucrose so I go
the the bulk isle of my supermarket and buy a 25 or 50 lb bag of sugar!
As soon as I get it to the lab I have to stick an NFPA warning sticker
on it because, technecally, it is explosive!  Of course, that rule was
made for processing plants were sugar dust IS an explosion hazard
because they deal with TONS of sugar and have pounds of dust.  Now, even
a BIG 50 lb sack of sucrose doesn't have enough dust to be a problem,
but rules are rules!  But, when a student sees a warning label on
something that he or she puts in coffee every morning, it makes them
wonder if any of the rules are meaningful!

*   Peter Herman, Dept. of Biology      Phone: +1 505 646 4532    *
*   New Mexico State University         Fax:   +1 505 646 5665    *
*   Box 30001, Dept. 3AF                                          *
*   Las Cruces, NM 88003 USA            e-mail rpeter at nmsu.edu    *

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