Laboratory Safety

Joan Marie Shields jshields at taurus.oac.uci.edu
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 uci.edu       http://www.ags.uci.edu/~jshields
University of California - Irvine                            
School of Social Ecology   Department of Environmental Analysis and Design
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