Issue Date: December 19, 2011
Safe Practices In Academic Labs
I am disappointed to learn from the article “Academic Lab Safety under Exam” that most of the conventional industrial laboratory concepts and practices of decades ago have yet to be implemented in colleges and graduate schools in 2011 (C&EN, Oct. 24, page 25). Maybe I’m prejudiced because I come from a history of dangerous research, went through years of “training” with high-pressure reactions, and ended up teaching industrial safety to college faculty and students (as well as industrial and municipal investigators).
I suspect one aspect is that college students and, even worse, graduate students are imbued with the belief that they are invincible. In addition, time is such a huge factor to students that something has to give, and it often has been safety.
But faculty must carry a good portion of the responsibility. In the 1980s, I was contracted to provide right-to-know training to the entire faculty of an engineering college. Many faculty grumbled about the expected waste of time and brought test papers they planned to score during my lectures. I was flattered when several of these professors stopped me afterward to compliment me and to comment that they “had never thought of” this or that.
Regrettably, I suspect many consultants providing training programs for industry and academia have limited real-lab experience. They can quote the laws but have never worked in a lab and have never seen the absurd things that can AND DO happen! My motto always was (and still is): “IF IT CAN GO WRONG, IT WILL.”
Academia is also more unique (?) in that chemical invention is what’s going on here, all the time. Often the answer to the question “What happens when I combine A and B?” is “I don’t know.” And yet we have the smartest students and faculty to consider the options—if they would only take the time and, if necessary, do the thermodynamic conversion (ΔH) calculation. Of course, if you’re not sure, do the experiment on the smallest possible scale. I had many test-tube experiments blow up in forceps behind a shield or even in my gloved hand—with no injury! The professor must truly be the mentor.
Another problem that seemed to be more of an issue in academic laboratories was the storage of chemical products, by-products, and the infamous “dark brown residue.” Most end up in small vials, labeled only with a jumble of numbers and stored in some unventilated, overheated closet until the label corrodes away and no one dares touch it! I don’t know if that situation still prevails, but I hope not.
More paperwork is not the answer—unless it is successful in forcing administrators and faculty to accept their responsibility to students, colleagues, and to their paying institute.
By Herbert S. Skovronek
Morris Plains, NJ
Jeff Johnson and Jyllian Kemsley report on an important subject: academic lab safety. We in industry study and hope to learn from all incidents like those reported by C&EN. However, one key aspect is special to academic labs: Most of the people in the labs are relative rookies. Some professors send students and postdocs to the lab without ever setting foot in there themselves. In fact, professors are likely to be somewhat poor in lab technique given the emphasis on grant and article writing and teaching.
By contrast, an industrial lab will frequently have people with 10, 15, or 20 years’ experience in the lab. You cannot teach years of experience. So it’s not surprising that mistakes occur in a lab full of people where the most senior person may only have four or five years of experience. In some rare cases, a professor sending students off to do experiments with life-threatening reagents or procedures may tend toward negligence. The culture of having labs populated by inexperienced people has to change or more people will be hurt or killed.
By Larry N. Lewis
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
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