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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Lab Safety Tips

Most labs require new staff and attachment students to attend basic safety training before starting work, so they are usually instilled with a fairly good safety sense right from day one.

However, not all safety issues are covered by the training. Some of these are highly specific to the nature of the task - for example biohazards and radioactivity.

Others are generally applicable in most research settings. Fresh Brainz would like to draw your attention to a few safety tips that will help safeguard against less obvious dangers in the lab (Note: These are my personal opinions only!) -

1. Gloves Are Not Invincible

An obvious way to know whether a person is a real researcher or just somebody who plays one on TV is to watch how she handles gloves.

There are two main reasons for wearing gloves - to protect the sample against contamination, or to protect your hands from hazardous materials.

In the first case, the gloves should be kept clean and sterile using regular sprays of ethanol. One should only handle the relevant samples with your gloves. Pay attention to where your hands are going. You should not scratch your face or receive a phone call while wearing gloves. When in doubt, change gloves often to avoid cross-contamination.

In the second scenario, it must be emphasized that gloves are protective but not invincible. If corrosive chemicals spill onto the gloves, they will slowly permeate through it. Thus, you should discard your contaminated gloves and replace them with fresh ones promptly.

There is a method for removing contaminated gloves safely. First, use a gloved hand to slide off a contaminated glove and drop it into the appropriate waste container. Next, slide a bare finger into the inside of the other glove and quickly turn it inside out while dropping it into the waste container.

Never use your bare hands to contact the outside of a contaminated glove. That utterly defeats the purpose of wearing gloves.

2. Keep Your Hazards Low

To reduce the impact of accidental spills, keep only small quantities of hazardous material enough for your protocol at the bench.

In addition, handle these reagents as close to the work surface as possible. If you keep them low, in the case of an accident the spills will usually be in a small area and easily decontaminated.

If you handle them high above the work surface, in the case of an accident the container will drop onto the bench/floor, splashing everywhere and causing a big mess that can be a pain in the ass to clean up.

3. A Sealed Container Is A Potential Bomb

New lab personnel are instinctively careful about chemicals and flammables. They are usually cautious about mixing chemicals and working with flammables, because they know that these can cause explosions if not handled properly.

However, it should be emphasized this does not apply only to reactive chemicals - any sealed container can become an explosive risk.

All you need to do is to add heat.

Thus, it is a good practice to check that containers to be heated in microwaves or hot plates have a way to vent their expanding gases.

A loosened cap on a glass bottle or flask is usually not enough, because the rapid gas expansion inside can set the cap tightly against the screw threads, blocking the escape of hot gases. A better method is to plug the opening loosely with soft material that can pop out harmlessly.


Finally, here's another tip for non-lab personnel who are visiting research labs as part of an guided tour or "open day" exhibition.

Unless instructed, avoid touching anything in the lab with your bare hands.

In particular, stay away from the sinks, which may have traces of bleach that can ruin your clothing. A long time ago, an admin personnel had her expensive blouse damaged by a few drops of bleach when she leaned against a lab sink.

And after your visit, don't forget to wash your hands before going home - you wouldn't want to bring a Crankémon home to your kids!



Guru said...

Dear Lim,

Sealed containers, sometimes, even without heating, explode, if the chemicals inside react and produce gases, albeit at a very slow rate. So, in addition to other precautions, without closing the container, it is good to think for a moment whether the chemicals inside can undergo such a reaction.


Lim Leng Hiong said...

Yes Guru, I mentioned chemicals earlier. New staff are instinctively careful about these; it's the "inert" material like gels and agar that are less obvious hazards.

Of course, like you said, understanding the chemicals you are using is good advice.

JM Ridlon said...

For anyone out there working with anaerobic bacteria (not many of us) and are new to this area, make sure you keep your flasks tubing open to the environment during autoclave....unless you want glass and boiling media everywhere. Good to see posts on safety, especially for new students surfing the science blogosphere!

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Hi JM, welcome to Fresh Brainz!

Thanks for your tip about the autoclave. Yes, it is useful to share safety tips to help avoid mishaps at the bench, especially the less obvious dangers.