Debbie Knight

Lab pranks not always safe, part 2

In lab safety on January 17, 2012 at 9:00 am

A graduate student writes her name in flaming ethanol on her lab bench and posts the photo on her Facebook page. (Image stolen from this source)

Any microbiology student (or culinary chef) worth their muster knows that ethanol will burn.

In a restaurant it is often used to make a dramatic table-side display.  But in the laboratory, it is not something that should be done on a whim. Sure the low-temperature blue flame can be pretty. But if there are combustible materials nearby (paper, an open bottle of ethanol, a shirt sleeve), well, that’s how lab fires can happen.

In the photo above, this graduate student wrote her name on her lab bench in ethanol and then lit it. She thought it was funny enough to share with her Facebook friends with the caption, “Trying to write my name in fire … I believe this means my brain is done thinking for the day. Time to go home.”

(I’d say!)

I’m probably her only Facebook friend that found the photo worrisome (her other friends found it funny by evidence of the “likes” they gave). And she’ll probably “unfriend” me once she hears about this blog post. (Update: She did)

But as a laboratory safety officer in a research lab (not her lab, mind you), I bristled at the photo. This is not the sort of thing you want to see from a responsible lab citizen working in your laboratory. In this case, the graduate student has worked several years in the lab now — she should know better. A question that raced through my safety officer mind is if a lab citizen is doing this, what else is he or she doing that I should know about? The last thing a lab safety officer wants to happen on her watch is an incident (like a fire or a chemical spill or an injury). Those kinds of things are reported to the university’s Environmental Health and Safety Department. And then the entire lab may be penalized for that brief moment of “fun.”

Posting her mischief on a social website was not the best idea (perhaps it was her tired state of mind). You never know who will see it, especially as it is passed around the Internet. Call me paranoid, but what if someone from Environmental Health and Safety sees the photo, recognizes her affiliation with a specific lab, and busts her entire lab  for the seemingly innocent prank? It’s a small networked world, you just never know. (And, yes, the irony of posting the picture on my blog has not escaped me — but you will note I’m not using any names here)

But she’s not the only one who has done this. I know another graduate student (from the same lab — hmmm … perhaps pyromaniacs are drawn to this particular lab)(like a flame?) who walked by his labmate’s bench, dumped a jar of ethanol on the bench top and lit it on fire. In this case, there were actually papers on and around the bench top which could have easily caught on fire.

I’m not trying to be a “downer” here. It’s just there are safety rules and guidelines for a reason — someone somewhere did something stupid and, well, they had to make a new rule about it.

As a laboratory safety officer, I think there are enough rules, regulations and guidelines to remember — we don’t need any more! So, please, if you’re working in a lab, stop and think before you give in to that impulse to write your name in flaming alcohol (or something equally as stupid)!

Update 1/19/12: It should be noted that the university’s EHS is taking this situation pretty seriously. I got a phone call from an administrator’s office this morning about this. Yikes! My intention of this blog post was by no means a criticism of the university’s EHS (they do an excellent job)(and I really mean that, they do!) — it was meant to inform the general public of the importance of lab safety. AT ALL TIMES.

Be safe out there!

Update: 3/7/12:  The university’s EHS included an article in the quarterly newsletter reminding lab personnel that horseplay is not a laughing matter. This may or may not have been because of the above incident. Without further ado, here’s the article:

A page from the university environmental health and safety's quarterly newsletter addressing lab pranks and horseplay in the lab published for March 2012.


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