I don my lab coat, ready for an afternoon of experiments. After some rummaging, I finally find a pair of safety glasses, a rare commodity in a lab of 30+ students where monies appear to be scant when it comes to procuring new personal protective equipment. I’ll be hiding this pair in my office.
“I need 5 milliliters a 1molar solution.”
A senior postdoc hands me a bottle of some white powdery substance, and waves me toward the dry chemical balance on the lab bench. I glance down and read the label on the bottle… potassium cyanide… a small skull and crossbones stares up and me. Very toxic.
Only a few days later do I realize, talking to other senior graduate students from a neighboring laboratory, that I should have weighed that chemical out under the fume hood, and probably worn an extra set of gloves. For my non-scientist readers, a fume hood is a ventilation device designed to limit exposure to hazardous fumes or airborne particulates by drawing air in from the opening to the hood and then filtering and expelling the air outside the building, away from the scientist working with these hazardous compounds. The senior postdoc in charge of assigning me to the task did not bring it to my attention that I could, and should, have relocated the balance to the hood when working with this very toxic compound. Here is the hazards identification for potassium cyanide according to the compound’s material safety data sheet (MSDS):
POISON! DANGER! MAY BE FATAL IF SWALLOWED, INHALED OR ABSORBED THROUGH SKIN. CONTACT WITH ACIDS LIBERATES POISONOUS GAS. CAUSES BURNS TO SKIN, EYES, AND RESPIRATORY TRACT. AFFECTS BLOOD, CARDIOVASCULAR SYSTEM, CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM AND THYROID.
The protective equipment required for working with this compound are also listed on the MSDS: GOGGLES & SHIELD; LAB COAT & APRON; VENT HOOD; PROPER GLOVES. There were no readily available plastic shields in laboratory in which I was working… or lab aprons for that matter. Moisture can cause slow decomposition of potassium cyanide, releasing poisonous hydrogen cyanide gas. To my recollection, the bottle was not sealed against moisture or stored with any desiccant preservatives. Oh yes, and there was the issue of not having a cyanide antidote kit on hand.
I started to wish I’d been given a more thorough safety training. When I stopped to think about it, I realized I had never attended an official chemical laboratory safety training session in my 4 years of lab bench research. I had never been required to take anything but a superficial safety certification quiz, which mostly touched on regulations pertaining to laboratory inspections. The resulting safety certificate was tucked away into some dust-covered binder, so that administration could pull up record of my ‘training’ upon official inspection. The department perhaps then would not be held liable if I made a devastating mistake. They would point out that I had been trained to the highest standards of hazardous chemical practice…
Recent accidents resulting in the deaths of two laboratory workers (Sheharbano Sangji, a 23-year old research assistant in a chemical laboratory accident in 2008, and Michelle Dufault, an undergraduate student in a machine-shop accident just this month) have raised awareness of potentially unfit working conditions in academic laboratories across the country (Nature – A death in the lab, 2011). “Many scientists are well aware of poor safety practices in their laboratories – such as too many people working on their own, students not properly trained to use equipment, or a general reluctance to wear safety glasses and coats.” (Nature, Accidents in waiting, 2011). However, there seems to be some discrepancy between real conditions in academic laboratories and those reported in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook of 2010-2011. ""Biological scientists are not usually exposed to unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Those who work with dangerous organisms or toxic substances in the lab must follow strict safety procedures to avoid contamination." Also: “Chemical technicians may work with toxic chemicals or radioactive isotopes… however these working conditions pose little risk if proper safety procedures are followed.” Notice the caveat inherent in these statements… IF strict and proper safety procedures are followed. But are they?
Researchers new to a particular field or work setting might put themselves at risk unknowingly if procedures for routine safety training are not in place and enforced. I myself moved from a primarily biological research setting to a heavily chemical research laboratory, without receiving hands-on safety training appropriate for a scientist who has not previously worked with very toxic or otherwise hazardous chemicals. Often, written safety training and exams are required before an employee or student enters the science laboratory environment. These requirements are in place to assure the researcher’s safety; however, surveys have indicated that personal, hands-on training is much more effective in preserving safety and making the worker feel comfortable amidst potential hazards that accompany work with reactive chemicals and biologic substances.
Concerns over academic laboratory safety may be especially acute for student researchers under the stress of exam weeks, manuscript deadlines, and thesis milestones. Are strict safety procedures always followed under pressure of getting ’results? According to the CRC Handbook of Laboratory Safety, symptoms associated with occupational exposures include shortness of breath, headaches, nausea and dizziness – these symptoms may be obscured or compounded by sickness and lack of sleep, a common plight of the PhD student. Devising proper lab safety procedures may also be difficult in situations where academic researchers are working at the forefront of scientific knowledge, where risks must be factored in for materials (Nanomaterials, for example) for which long term health effects are not yet known. In these cases it would be prudent to make regular student health evaluations, related to substance exposures, freely available and even mandatory.
What Should Be Done?
Laboratory safety training should consist of more than cursory readings and quizzes online, far from the physical environment of the lab bench. Where is Lab Safety 101, a mandatory undergraduate course covering basic laboratory safety, required for students entering fields involving hands-on chemical or biological research? Perhaps also a required graduate course on Advanced Lab Safety Techniques would be appropriate, forcing graduates to leave the classroom and demonstrate their knowledge of correct safety techniques in the physical laboratory setting. How about safety training certificate programs involving at-the-bench evaluations, like the physical driving-test at the DMV? Many a driver would fail to obtain their license if after the written test, they were not required to demonstrate parallel-parking skills or hands-on knowledge of the rules of the road. I personally do not think it is enough to touch on lab safety along the way during Beginning Chem Lab 101. We need a more institutionalized lab safety education, treating safety as a first priority, not as an afterthought to avoid costly fines due to failed inspections or accidents.
It is almost negligent for academic professors and senior graduate students to expect beginning students, even researchers new to a particular working environment, to adhere properly to all safety procedures without a starting period of direct supervision. According to EHS today, everyone on the jobsite is responsible for safety, and new, inexperienced students might put not only themselves, but the entire lab group at risk if they are not following proper procedure. Every researcher new to a particular lab environment, whether undergraduate or PhD level, should be given lab-specific hands-on safety training prior to attempting experiments alone. If you are that beginner student, or if you feel uncomfortable with an unfamiliar or dangerous experiment, ASK for supervision! Safety comes first… your life may depend on it.
CRC Handbook of lab safety: common hazards in the laboratory environment include acids, flammable and combustible liquids, gases, explosives, toxic materials, irritants, carcinogens, allergens, and pathogens