Thursday, August 30, 2012

Safety training

A brief post for a busy time:  For various reasons, I'm interested in lab safety training of grad students (and postdocs and undergrads) at universities.  In particular, I am curious about best practices - approaches that are not invasive, burdensome, or one-size-fits-all, but never the less actually improve the safety of researchers.  If you think your institution does this particularly well, please post in the comments about what they do and why, or drop me an email.  Thanks.


Anonymous said...

In my old lab, which was not in the US, the safety training consisted of two parts. One part where you learned how to use a fire extinguisher (within a few weeks from starting at the lab), held by the chief laboratory engineer.
The first part was given immediately at the start of the work by a grad student. It was a short briefing:
* There are some pretty dangerous gases around here. If you hear the that alarm out there beep, shout a warning, hold your breath and leave the building immediately.
* If you see, through the lab door window, someone lying on the floor of the lab, don't rush in but call help. The atmosphere in the lab might be dangerous.
* Otherwise, don't mess around. You're a physics student, you should know these things.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, too many trainings only say "do this, don't do that".
People will forget this type of info. Especially people with a "science-mind".
I always explain WHY you should (not) do a particular thing. Understanding why something is a safety rule facilitates remembrance, and most importantly creates trust instead of belittling new lab-workers. It ties directly in the way a (budding) scientist's mind works.
(Example don't mix organic solvents and strong acids, don't put water in a strong acid but put strong acid in water. This is easy to forget UNLESS an explanation is communicated.)

But then again, I'm the person that immediately rips out all interlocks on vacuum systems because they dumb down the user instead of create understanding from which proper use is possible.

Anonymous said...

As an undergrad I worked at two national labs in the US, where you had a safety assessment followed by training specific to the hazards you encountered (high voltage, lasers, cryogens, but also things like ergonomics). Most of the instructors I had did a great job explaining WHY various measures were necessary. It was also possible to take CPR and First Aid courses for free. And everyone was really safety-conscious, without feeling like there was too much red tape or anything.

Then I got to grad school, and had only a brief safety lecture, most of which was about biological samples did not apply to my research. The safety coordinator in our lab was another grad student who had a terrible time getting people to follow any of the required procedures for chemicals, nanostructured waste, etc. My advisor didn't really care about the issue as long as we got results.

And now I am a postdoc, where I had an even shorter safety briefing. I routinely see people putting their heads into fume hoods or wearing the same gloves all around the building, touching every door handle. It's horrifying.

JDeibel said...

One safety issue that is often overlooked in a lot of lab safety training programs is compressed gas cylinder safety. A lot of students handle these cylinders not appreciating the fact that they are often described as low-yield torpedoes. There was a time at former institution of mine that the grad students in the lab next door were "storing" full O2 and N2 cylinders in the hallway, laying on their side, free to roll anywhere around the hallway. I thought it was a miracle that one of the cylinders had not gone into launch mode when these students laid them down.

The Mythbusters did a great episode about compressed gas cylinders. I wouldn't show that as part of safety training though...

EliRabett said...

Like they say about quantum mechanics, safety training has to anticipate things that are not only stranger than you think, but stranger than you can think.

The first thing to do is to ask around and figure out if the university/department safety officer is reasonable or a jerk. If the first, sit down and have a talk about what resources are available to you.

One site that has useful stuff available on the web is Oklahoma State University. Remember, that much of this is designed for staff so it may appear to be at a lower level than you want but the basics are there.

Eli Rabett

LMK said...

In undergrad we had a really involved department that made safety a clear priority throughout all of the courses. This is partially an artifact of one of the profs writing a book on safety:

But the one thing I liked best is they taught that safety is being aware of what's going on around you. Just by putting gloves, goggles, and a lab coat on doesn't mean you're safe! You can easily be wearing gloves, touch something dangerous, then use a computer and leave that chemical all over it... :/ But I think this is what a lot of undergrads take away from safety - just wear PPE, when in reality that's not going to do the job. You need to know what you're working with and act accordingly.

Also, I'm a chemist, and I definitely think there's a lack of safety understanding in other fields. I spent a summer working in a elec. engineering lab and there were engineers working with HF with sandals on, no safety glasses, let along goggles, and the wrong gloves. They just had no idea of what chemicals did in terms of personal risk.

I think the approach to safety needs to be more about teaching people where to get resources about and how to assess safety for each personal situation. I'm not going to remember specific rules from a seminar about not putting specific chemical next to another if I'm not using them in my work. But if I do start using those things, I need to understand how to read the MSDS, figure out where to store the chemicals, and how to handle them, etc.

Douglas Natelson said...

Thanks for the feedback and responses. There are a couple of aspects to this. First, it's important have a culture of safety, so that people understand and respect the risks inherent in their work environment, know how to mitigate those risks, and know where to get further information or help if they need it. Second, you want to make sure that the safety stuff is targeted - if people think it's just a box to check off for all grad students, that sends completely the wrong message. In CA, everyone needs to know about earthquake safety, but at Rice, for example, not everyone needs to know about laser safety or biohazard safety.

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