Do you ever wonder where safety policies come from? Let me tell you a story about some of my undergraduate student works and some scalpels from another lab in another lifetime. It was common in my lab to label glass tubes with lab tape, then autoclave the tubes. When the cultures in the tubes were moved into bigger containers, the glass tubes were then washed and reused. Autoclaving lab tape does wonders to permanently adhere to glassware. Instead of perpetually building up layers of lab tape, the student opted to scrape off the tape with a scalpel. (You see where this is going don’t you?) Doing this while the tubes were dry seemed safe enough. Then they found if they let the tape soak in water, it would get soft and easier to scrape off. Sure enough, my first student comes to my desk with a fantastically bleeding cut open finger. We applied first aid, the injury was reported, and the student sent on their way to the health center. The student was advised to not use sharps with wet glass tubes again.
The next week, two more students come to my desk with sliced open fingers. Let me guess? Scraping off wet lab tape? Yep. To the health center for you. Hours later, I get an email from EH&S strongly suggesting that all students are given “Scalpel Training” before starting work in the lab. Now everyone in the next group meeting had to listen to me explain how to safety use a scalpel (keep the sharp end facing away from your fingers). Now there is a policy in place that very specifically states to not use scalpels with wet tubes. Well, for that particular lab anyways. Spoiler alert, the policy didn’t seem to stop workers from getting cut by scalpels. Scraping off wet lab tape continues to be just too tempting and the whole situation continues to be incredibly frustrating for supervisors.
Overwhelmingly, safety policies are put into place because something bad has happened. Someone did something and they got hurt. Biodesign has a specific policy about using secondary containment for transporting materials through hallways, because someone once spilled contaminated materials all over the feet of touring guests. Fortunately, no one was hurt and this sort of incident has never happened again. In our lab we have lab specific policies about using pressure relief valves for systems where purging media is necessary. We have policies about storing waste containers in specific areas. We have policies about how to handle needles.
However, while the policies are a nice additional guide to lab safety beyond formal mandatory training, in reality it is up to each individual worker to ensure their own safety. The lab worker upon entrance to the lab must realize on a conscious level that they are entering into an environment that is fully capable of harming them. In our lab as diverse as ours, the lab worker must also realize that the harm could very well come from outside of just their limited scope of work. We have all heard the saying that someone walking by you could spill a chemical on you. Or you are working near someone else who is doing dangerous work, so you must also protect yourself.
We hear these things, but do we really internalize them? More often than not, I see a mentor enter the lab and look over the shoulder of a mentee as they are doing lab work. Often the mentee is fully protected in PPE, but the mentor is not- using the excuse of transient passage in the lab. While the policy is in fact worded in favor of the mentor not wearing PPE for a brief moment, could the mentor’s safety still be compromised?
The reality is that the lab coordinator is not in the lab 24/7 to monitor best practices in terms of safety. When it comes down to the harsh reality of injuries, the question will not be, “was the coordinator there to remind you to be safe?” but rather will be, “what did you do to protect yourself?”
Recently a story about Dr. Mitch McGee was posted by EH&S:
After receiving his doctorate in microbiology in the 1980s, Mitch Magee, now a researcher in the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, began studying tuberculosis (TB) in a lab on the East Coast. Because TB is a highly infectious, airborne disease, the lab purchased a centrifuge tool with a special lid to keep the bacteria from getting in the air.
“We were smart. We knew what we were doing. We were covering all our bases,” explained Magee. The team grew some TB bacteria for six months and conducted their experiments.
A year later Magee had to get a TB skin test to make sure he hadn’t been exposed to the disease. With the test, an extract of TB bacteria is injected in your skin, and if you’re infected you get a little red bump the size of a small marble.
Magee’s bump was three times that size.
He called his boss and they had everyone in the lab tested. Three other people were infected.
“One of them actually had a lesion on her lung. She had active tuberculosis. So they had to go test all of her family. Her little brother had an active lesion on his lung. So they had to go test all of his junior high school class,” Magee said. Fortunately, the infection stopped there.
Magee said he learned early in his career that even when something gets written into the standard operating procedure, people may not always follow the rules.
After a yearlong investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, his previous lab figured out that one of the technicians hadn’t been using the special centrifuge lid. Without it, the bacteria likely got in the air, and later into the lungs of the affected people.
“Sometimes people get lax. You have to make sure your procedures are being followed. If you write them, you have to follow them,” he said.
As we start fresh this New Year, I beseech you to be mindful of your own safety. Where the extra set of gloves while using dichloromethane (or better yet use the fancy expensive butyl-viton gloves I purchased for this very purpose). Put on your goggles while working with chemicals, including media components. Wear your lab coat, even if it warm in the lab. Take the extra step and put on a rubber apron and face shield when working with caustics. Take precautions. Don’t work when you are exhausted past the point of good decision making. Read the SOP before operating equipment you are unfamiliar with. Use the thermo gloves when pulling items out of the -80 freezers. I could go on. It’s up to you, to prevent injury. You must make the decision to realize your formal training and actually use it.
Dr. Karen Kibler, said that the most shocking thing she learned from an industry leader during a talk at a compliance officer meeting, was that industry sorely needs new graduates who have respect for lab safety. Industry is finding more and more than new graduates are woefully unprepared to take their own safety into their own hands. It is such a desperate desire that many companies will hire those with lab safety background, over those with more research experience.
I’d love to hear feedback about your own lab safety experiences and how they have shaped your perspective of working in the lab. Please comment below or send me an email.
ASU’s Official Policy on Sharps, Including Needles
How to Report Sharps Injuries