I am willing to bet most of us can tell a few "horror stories" of lab
accidents and near misses. And I am also willing to bet that MOST of
these occurred in an educational environment, NOT in a commercial lab.
In many cases students, especially graduate students, get involved in
experimentation, which, by the nature of their thesis, is independent,
with minimal supervision and instruction. Indeed, because of class
scheduling, a great deal of lab work is done after hours when there is
no supervisory staff around. I can't tell you how many times I go into
my lab in the morning and find that someone has been there since I
left the previous workday, and equipment has been improperly used or
broken. (Not to mention that a post-doc getting upset because I, with
a mere BS degree but 15 years of experience, won't let him remove a
balance from my lab to another building for his use.) Because of their
independence and graduate status there is an awful lot of ATTITIDE on
the more lax side of safety (not everybody, thank God!). On top of
this problem, a lot of students get into a program when their
undergraduate studies were not directly in the same field of study,
and have very little applicable lab experience.
Because of these, even though I agree that there is a lot of over
stated hazard ratings on materials, I feel that safety cannot be
overstated. Research staff need to act as appropriate role models, and
need to be listened to, regardless of degree status. If they can't act
appropriately around students, they shouldn't be allowed in the lab.
Just a few gripes, and I'll get off my soapbox:
MSDS information, while available, is not previewed, consulted,
followed, or understood. One example: A student needing to use a
soluble barium salt made the comment "Oh, barium... they use this in
enemas, therefore it must be harmless." Another student got mad at me
because I told her repeatedly, each time rising my voice after the
previous order was ignored, to get the MSDS sheet for cleanup
information on the bottle of trichloroacetic acid which she dropped
and broke on the floor. She wanted to make a formal complaint that I
yelled at her. (Oh, that's no more dangerous than vinegar) Again,
because of my degree status relative to hers, she felt she "outranked"
me, and I could not order her to do something.
There never seems to be enough fume hood space, and materials get used
in the open that shouldn't.
Too much course work emphasis is based on theory and fundamentals and
too little on the practical, and general approved laboratory
There are very few locks on anything, and there are more open lab
environments than there are secured ones. Equipment drawers and
chemical cabinets are rarely secured. Too many things walk away at
One more observation that I haven't seen mentioned before: finding a
chewed on pen or pencil out on a lab bench. Pen and pencil
manufacturers should impregnate some truly horrible (tho benign)
material in their products to keep people from EVER even starting the
habit of chewing on these items. Just because there is no food in the
lab, that doesn't mean things don't get put casually in the mouth.
Maybe only allowing data entry by keyboard or chained down pens that
can't be put into the mouth would work, but these are not practical.
No, accidents will happen, even to the most safety conscious. But it
is irresponsible for role models to act carelessly around students.