Now is the Right Time to Take a Fresh Look at Your Lab's Safety Protocols and Practices

It’s human nature to become complacent and relaxed in a familiar and comfortable setting. Things become routine, and you are able to navigate most of the day on autopilot. This is just as true in your lab, which can become like home or a comfortable old friend. But take a minute now and think back to when you first started working in a lab, and everything was new and challenging.

You were probably a bit nervous at the beginning, not wanting to seem completely clueless. You also may have been somewhat awed by the equipment, the chemicals, the procedures and the ease with which others in the lab moved from task to task. You studied those with more experience and took your cues from them on how to conduct yourself and approach specific operations. Some things might have looked wrong or even dangerous, but you were reassured when you saw others walk past without a hint of concern. These people were your role models and the keepers of laboratory knowledge; anything that passed muster with them must be okay. Out in front of these lab guardians was the principal investigator (PI), who ran the lab. You met with the PI when you were hired. He or she probably gave you a lab tour and set up a schedule to meet with you about your research progress. After that, you were handed off to the lab staff for your practical training. As everything was new and unfamiliar, you accepted things as the way they should be.

Now that a good number of years separate you from those first impressions, you have probably experienced firsthand success, as well as some close calls and some mishaps. YOU are now probably one of the role models that others look up to. Is the message you want to pass on to those folks reflected in the lab you manage? Some yoga instructors tell us we should close our eyes and then open them as if we were a child to see the world anew. We would ask you to do the same with your laboratory. Take a walk through your lab and look at everything with the eyes of a child, as though seeing it unprejudiced and honestly for the very first time.

A host of problems, from inappropriately stored waste to blocked hood baffles, unlabeled and mislabeled containers to residual spills. Photo courtesy of Mark Yanchisin

Let’s start in the hallway outside the lab. Is the entrance to your lab labeled with up-to-date emergency contact and safety information? If a security guard heard a freezer alarm going off at 5 a.m. or a custodian discovered water pouring through the ceiling from a plumbing problem on the floor above, would they easily be able to contact the right lab staff who could take appropriate action? Is there an up-to-date call list in the lab should you need to call in “all hands”? These are such easy things to do, and they can potentially preserve weeks, months or years of stored science as well as countless dollars in replacement costs.

We now move inside. What is your first impression when looking with “fresh eyes”? Is the lab neat, orderly and organized, or does it trend more toward chaos and entropy? Would your mother be proud of what she saw if she came to visit? The first impression that greets an outside inspector often sets the tone for what follows. The floors and aisles should be free from trip and spill hazards, such as randomly stored boxes, chemicals and waste. The absorbent, disposable paper bench coat should not be so contaminated that it documents the chemical usage of the bench student’s entire graduate career. Bench coats should be replaced periodically and whenever gross contamination occurs. Are the waste receptacles overfull? Are they properly contained and labeled? Peek in the garbage cans. Is there any inappropriate waste? Look at the sinks. Is the lab keeping up with the dirty glassware, or does this area resemble a mountain of precariously stacked dishes in a fraternity house kitchen? Does the glassware prevent quick and safe access to the emergency eyewash at the end of the bench?

As we stroll up and down each aisle, let’s focus in more detail. Look at what is on the benches and on the shelving between common benches. The bench top is where much of the science occurs. Are chemical containers labeled appropriately so that in case of an emergency, or even just a minor spill, all could decipher their content? We have seen inappropriate labeling of secondary chemical containers on many occasions, usually done by individuals wanting to prevent others in the lab from using their stock solutions. Inappropriate labeling of containers can present a hazard. It also is one of the most cited regulatory violations and can carry very stiff fines. Are chemicals stored properly and only kept out for the need at hand? Are sharps properly managed? Pull open some drawers; you may be surprised by what you find. Do bench-top equipment and apparatuses look properly assembled? Look at the glassware; are there chips or cracks, or starring on roundbottom flasks? Is there food on the bench? Are there any exposed electrical hazards or moving parts on equipment (e.g., belt guards on vacuum pumps)?

Take this opportunity to find and follow the electrical and extension cords. Are the cords in good repair? Things to look for include frayed or damaged insulation, missing ground pins on the plugs, electrical cords plugged into other cords and extension cords supplying power to equipment that is, for all practical purposes, stationary (e.g., freezers). If you find you have many extension cords and power strips throughout the lab, you may need to have additional outlets installed. Make sure that your important samples and operations are protected by emergency power (often identifiable as a red power receptacle).

Incompatible storage of chemicals. Photo courtesy of Mark Yanchisin

We now come to the fume hood, one of our most critical yet most misused pieces of safety equipment. A number of conditions must be maintained in order for a fume hood to effectively capture and exhaust contaminants. Unfortunately, most of these can be short-circuited by the user, resulting in potential exposures to the user and others in the lab. For the hood to work properly, air must be able to enter the face of the hood and sweep from the front to the rear with sufficient velocity but without excessive turbulence that can cause eddies. The hood sash must be positioned to produce effective capture velocity (capture velocity = volume flow/face area). The more open the sash, the greater the face area and the lower the capture velocity. The sash is also designed to provide user protection from explosions and other experiments gone awry in the hood. If the sash is up, this protection is removed. Make sure work is conducted at least six inches back from the face of the fume hood. Be sure that the air exhaust slots are not blocked at the rear of the hood. (This is where the air must go to leave along with the contaminants.) The front airfoil should not be obstructed; this provides direction to the air that sweeps the bottom surface of the hood. The same is true for biosafety cabinets. Make sure the front grill is not obstructed. This is critical for effective containment. As the interior needs to be decontaminated regularly, it is even more important that the front grill be free of clutter.

Where do we begin? Photo courtesy of Mark Yanchisin

You get the idea. Continue on and look at your safety equipment: showers, eyewashes, fire extinguishers, etc. Are these easily accessible, tested and ready to use? Look at your storage cabinets and check for chemical compatibility, proper labeling, and secure shelving. Peek inside your refrigerators. What do you see?

Now that you’ve looked around carefully at the physical lab, take a look at the people in it. In many cases, these are people entrusted to you for their education as graduate students and post-docs or perhaps for their continued livelihood as technical staff. If you are the lab manager or PI, you are the role model and they will follow your lead. Your behavior will establish proper conduct in the lab. Are they making good choices? Are they sufficiently skilled to do the tasks necessary for their assignments? Do you intervene when necessary?

Most of the science world has heard of the recent tragedy at UCLA where Sheri Sangji, a 23-year-old research assistant, died as a result of severe burns received during an experiment. Though we are not privy to information beyond that provided by public press and professional news groups1,2,3, it appears this was a case of an inexperienced chemist performing a dangerous procedure without proper training, equipment and supervision – a case of nonchalant, ad hoc procedures when in fact great care was actually needed. Now imagine speaking with the parents or spouse of someone in your lab who suffered a serious injury (or, even worse, died) and trying to explain why this happened. Could anything have been done to prevent it? From our years practicing safety in lab environments and investigating accidents, the answer is almost always “yes.”

So, now you have looked with “fresh eyes.” We hope you are satisfied with what you have seen. If you are not satisfied and you’re considering approaches for improvement, we have three suggestions:

Lead by example. Those working in the lab will generally follow the lead of those in charge. Make it a point to put on a lab coat and eye protection whenever you go into the lab. Consistently and impartially enforce rules. Discipline doesn’t have to be heavyhanded, but it does need to be consistent. If you see someone doing something that seems odd, don’t hesitate to ask about it. You might be very glad you did.

Set a time for cleanup. One of the largest and most productive synthetic organic chemistry labs we’ve had the pleasure to work with had mandatory cleanup time. All work had to cease one hour before the lab meeting each week. All lab staff had to spend that hour cleaning and maintaining their areas. The lab manager announced the cleanup time and walked through the lab during that hour to oversee and address issues, with the motto “That which gets measured, gets done.” The research manager also embraced the “lead by example” approach. Things never got out of hand; the lab was one of the best in terms of safety and compliance, and it produced quality science.

Have a productive method for bringing issues forward. This should be framed as a cooperative “we are in it for the common good” approach rather than a “gotcha”- type attitude. Require lab members, from the glass washer to the most senior staff member, to identify two or three safety issues at each lab meeting. Everyone should be able to come up with two issues regardless of how good a lab might be. These topics can then be opened to discussion and flagged for follow-up. This will set the stage for reinforcing safety as an important value in the culture of your laboratory.

References:
1. http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-uclaburn1-2009mar01,0,1233856,full.story
2. http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/lab-assistant-dies-of-injuries-78543.aspx
3. http://pubs.acs.org/cen/news/87/i04/8704news1.html