Preston Brown, a graduate student at Texas Tech University was working on the highly energetic nickel hydrazine perchlorate (NHP) in early January 2010 when an almost fatal accident that scarred him for life occurred. In a series of events that involved disregard for his supervisor’s guidelines, failure to wear safety and personal protection equipment (PPE), he incurred a perforated eye, three lost digits and severe lacerations on his arms following the explosion of the NHP.
To avoid such harmful repercussions, it is important to always put safety first by ensuring all lab members are well trained and adhere strictly to the rules and guidelines put in place. This essay breaks down a number of these stipulations to enable new staff or students to navigate the lab environment in a way that reduces the risk of injury and damage to the lab.
General Lab Safety Rules and Guidelines
The very first point of action for new staff or students is to go through a general orientation, usually by the lab manager or a graduate student. This encompasses the standard operating procedures, safety rules, and emergency response guidelines. It is imperative to take this training seriously, jot down notes if need be, request for copies of these guidelines for in-depth study and ask questions when things are not clear.
Regardless of the type of lab you are in, there are general rules on safety that you need to observe as discussed below:
Learn about emergency responses. You need to be familiar with what to do in case of an accident and whom to report to or contact. It is imperative to know where items like fire extinguishers, emergency showers, eyewash faucets, first aid kits, and fire blankets are stored and how to operate or use them. Ensure all accidents, however minor is reported to your supervisor.
Train before experimentation. Do not operate any equipment or conduct experiments without prior training. If you are still unsure of a certain procedure, get help from your supervisor or any other trained staff. Write down protocols or make copies of the SOPs to refer to when in doubt.
Plan your work during normal working hours. This ensures that you are not alone for prolonged periods because working alone leaves you more vulnerable in case of accidents or injuries. Having other members around you also ensures you have extra pairs of eyes to point out potential risks that you might miss while performing your experiments.
Treat all chemicals in the lab as if they were toxic. This means that there should be no direct sniffing, touching or tasting of chemicals or reaction mixes. Mouth pipetting is dangerous, so, use rubber bulbs or electronic pipette pumps to suck liquids and when using volatile or toxic chemicals, ensure to open and use them within a fume chamber. At the end of your experiments, thoroughly wash your hands with soap and clean water.
Adhere to electrical safety guidelines. Malfunction of sockets or equipment can lead to injury from electric shocks and damage to the lab from fires. Avoid the use of electrical extension cords and plugs with exposed or frayed wires. In case a machine causes electric shock, immediately shut down the power source and report this to the supervisor or technician in charge. Ensure that power sources are not overloaded because a lot of equipment can cause overheating of the socket which can lead to a fire.
Laser use safety guidelines. Safety guidelines depend on the classification of the laser, with high powered laser requiring more safety measures. Generally, protective eyewear is required when working with lasers of class IIIa, IIIb and IV to avoid injury to the lenses. Ensure reflective objects like mirrors and jewelry are removed because they can redirect the laser trajectory and bounce it off to skin or a flammable object. Always switch on the laser warning light to warn other lab members against entering the room without the appropriate PPE. Do not put the beam at eye level even when you think the laser is shut off.