Safety First…or Not?

This is the end of week 2 of the semester.  The first week was not a proper ‘freshers week’ per se, but a week of induction talks, meeting with personal tutees, new project students (all 5 of them!!) and laboratory safety talks.  I ended up doing the 1st year lab safety talk and the 3rd year project lab safety and lab rules talks.  I’ve postponed the 2nd year lab safety reminder talk for a few weeks, until they’re just about to start lab work again.  I’ll start working on it on Monday.

One thing that struck me was how different the 1st year and 3rd year talks were.  The 1st years are hitting the lab for the first time with us and we’re not making too many assumptions about prior lab experience – it’s easier to include everything.  I also feel with the 1st years that safety is more about going through the motions and following a set of rules, than evaluating risks effectively.  For example we’re asking all of our first years to fill out COSHH/Risk assessment forms for the first 5 experiments.  Last year we gave them the forms and asked them to read them, but in any case, the lab manual contains good information on safety and the lab briefing will emphasise it.  The experiments should also be fully assessed by the lab staff so we’re leaving little to chance.  That’s how it should be while students learn to evaluate risk.

The 3rd year talk was  a bit different.  As the majority are doing synthetic research projects and are involved in planning reactions for the first time, this talk focussed more on the types of risks that need to be thought about.  It isn’t quite the level of safety talk you’d give to research students who could be completing far more hazardous procedures (quenching stills comes to mind), but it’s getting on for it.  A lot involves emphasising good and courteous laboratory practice, as well as how to recognise and minimise hazards.  And so much more involves common sense like clean up if you spill a substance on a balance, wash up and if you’re using stinky chemicals, don’t subject others to the stench. Common sense does seem to be a little less common than I’d like, particularly when it comes to cleaning up small spills.

The 2nd year talk? No ideas as yet, it is the difficult stage where they think they recall last years well so don’t want to be told stuff again,  but need to develop their sense of risk awareness and hazard management.  I’ll probably briefly remind them of the lab ‘rules’, and show them how to use the new COSHH form properly.

One thing that does occur to me is that reading MSDS can be a health risk in itself.  While there is no doubt that they contain valuable information on how to deal with incidents, storage and chemical incompatibility, much of the safety information is abstract and difficult to put into a relevant context.  For example, an LD50 value is a difficult concept to translate from MSDS to hazard management for some of our students.  There’s also risk blindness (similar to black  note fever experienced by musicians when confronted with a page of very dense music manuscript) – the list of potential harmful effects often overrides the rational part of the brain and translates into ‘very very dangerous stuff, be very very afraid’.  At that point nothing else goes in other than the ‘your kids will have gils, and you’ll probably die because of measuring out 20 mg of this stuff’.  Seriously though, there are chemicals for which the hazard is very extreme and needs to be very carefully managed.  And then there is the majority of chemicals encountered in a synthetic laboratory.  I’m not trying to belittle risks, but respect is always better than fear, confidence better than nerves. Chemophobia is too pervasive within the chemistry community as well as the wider world and it gets in the way of getting good work done.  If you want to put things into some perspective (but not to instill a sense of over confidence and marginal risk), look up the MSDS for some of the compounds in shampoo, or synthetic vanilla flavour, capsaicin, or the like. They make interesting reading, and certainally serve as a good reminder that common and accepted compounds* carry risk in sufficient quantity.

Another thing that struck me as I was preparing the safety talks is how few undergrad lab safety talks there are available on the internet – do we all just hide them away in the dark recesses of our virtual learning environments? Are we scared to make them public just in case something happens that the talk didn’t cover? I would have thought that prospective students and their families, and those of current students might quite like the idea of being able to see the safety requirements set out somewhere.  Just a thought.  And where can we actually share best practice for undergraduate lab safety?

*I try, where possible, to use the term compound rather than chemical. Chemical is far too abused and has too many emotional connections associated with it for it to really be used in any rational context. Part of me thinks we should just give up on the chemical = mostly everything argument against the chemicals = bad people.  Chemists have generally accepted alternative definitions or uses  for organic, effervescent or volatile (cf personality), crystallise (cf ideas), just like other branches of sciences have accepted that their jargon has been comandeered for less than dictionary defined purposes.