Date: Tue, 15 Aug 2006 16:25:40 -0400
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From: List Moderator <esf**At_Symbol_Here**UVM.EDU>
Subject: Special Feature: Staying Well - Safety in the Lab

An interesting lab safety article from the AAAS "Science Careers"  
publication. There are three more original articles available at the  
bottom of the article. Thanks to Larry Doemeny for pointing out the  

Special Feature: Staying Well - Safety in the Lab
James Austin
United States
4 August 2006

As an early-career scientist or science trainee, youíve got more  
important things on your mind than laboratory safety. Youíve got  
experiments to finish, new techniques to learn, classes to excel in,  
exams to pass, grants or fellowships to fund, new initiatives to get  
off the ground. If youíre running your own lab, chances are youíve  
got a payroll to meet. You may have a family at home to support-- 
sometimes even an extended family. Your job is stressful enough, and  
your hours are long enough, without spending time worrying over spill  
kits, eye protection, explosion-proof storage cabinets, and  
radioactive waste disposal. Sure, itís important to follow guidelines  
and make reasonable choices, but it all needs to be kept in  
perspective. In some academic laboratories, a preoccupation with  
safety can even seem unprofessional; the most important thing is to  
get the work done. Right?

No, itís not right. The attitude expressed in the paragraph above is  
wrong--all wrong--for all sorts of reasons. When I was in graduate  
school, hereís the prep Iíd do for a typical experiment. First, I  
would clean a quartz tube with hydrofluoric acid. Then I would seal  
off one end of that tube--a process that involves extremely high  
temperatures and appalling intensities of ultraviolet (UV) radiation.  
I would evacuate the tube, then place in it (along with the sample I  
was studying) a gamma radiation source and--often-- bromine gas. Then  
I would seal off the other end of the quartz tube with my torch, at  
approximately 1600įC. I had no formal training for any of this; in  
fact, I figured out how to do all this myself, and I pieced together  
the apparatus from old equipment lying around the laboratory.

I was an outlier, I suspect, in terms of the intensity and diversity  
of risks I encountered daily, as well as in my lack of formal  
training. But just about every experimental science trainee  
experiences some variation on this theme: Their work entails a  
variety of risks in combination, they have little experience in  
dealing with those risks, and--much of the time--safety  
considerations take second place to getting the work done. And that  
is why, as John Borchardt reports in his contribution to this  
feature, accidents occur 10 to 50 times more frequently in academic  
labs than in industrial labs.

Hereís one way of looking at it. In other industries these days, it's  
routine to take basic safety precautions. In the logging industry,  
for example, protective clothing is ubiquitous; logging pros  
recognize that a chainsaw or a falling tree can kill them in an  
instant. Itís the weekend warrior, homeowner types--the ones who just  
proudly bought their first saws from a local hardware store last  
weekend--who are cavalier about safety. Itís the same with most other  
professionals, from electricians to stuntmen. Itís the amateurs who  
take unnecessary chances.

One of the reasons academic labs work as well as they do is their  
lack of structure. Individual scientists are free to explore.  
Institutional barriers to trying new things are minimal. But thereís  
a downside to that sort of informality: The academic lab is one of  
the few professional settings in which people with minimal training  
routinely do difficult and dangerous work. How many second-year  
physics graduate students over the years have repaired the electrical  
wiring in a broken vacuum pump--or even in a megavolt particle  
accelerator? How many people bending over UV light boxes know  
precisely what kind of eye and face protection they ought to be  
wearing? (Hereís a hint: Standard prescription eyeglasses arenít  
sufficient.) How many molecular biologists take the risks presented  
by basic reagents-- acrylamide , ethidium bromide--as seriously as  
they ought to? And how many of these people have had the rigorous  
training that would make them aware of all the risks and teach them  
the standard approaches to minimizing those risks? How many of them  
know what to do if something goes wrong?

Most institutions take safety very seriously, but that seriousness  
doesnít always trickle down to the level of the laboratory. Even when  
it does, no institutional safety regimen can come close to  
guaranteeing your safety. And, of course, no feature in can do the job--all we can really do is raise  
awareness. Ultimately, itís up to you to identify and mitigate the  
risks--not only the risks posed by the science itself but also of  
spaces and equipment that have been modified by generations of  
professional scientists who, in the course of their jobs, double as  
amateur electricians and mechanics.

First, from Europe, in Keeping Safe: Some Cautionary Tales, Lynn  
Dicks describes some accidents, in the lab and in the field, and  
extracts a lesson about the importance of self-reliance. 

Next, in Wear Your Safety Goggles, Jim Kling focuses on protecting  
your eyes because ironically eye protection--one of the most obvious  
and reliable safety measures a scientist can take--is too often  

Finally, in Lab Safety Requires Training and Commitment, John  
Borchardt points out just how hard it can be to identify safety risks  
in the laboratory--and notes that vigilance is required if you want  
to keep yourself and your colleagues safe. 

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