Debbie Knight

What NOT to say to a lab safety officer

In lab safety on August 1, 2012 at 11:06 am

At my university, food is not allowed in a laboratory area. No exceptions.

Yes, there was a time when it wasn’t a hard and fast rule – it was more like a mild suggestion. And there are still institutions that don’t have this rule.

I personally think it’s a good idea.

When I worked at Purdue many (many) years ago, it felt really weird eating at my desk nestled next to the very lab bench where I worked with bacteria and suspected cancer-causing chemicals. I often wonder what would have happened if I had been exposed to a dash of those bacterial strains on my sandwich. Of course I always washed my hands before I sat down at my desk (thanks, mom, for making me the hand-washing fiend I am today!).

But it felt weird all the same. I didn’t know any better. That’s what everyone did.

This “no food in the lab” rule is now so ingrained in my psyche that I pretty much freak out if I see someone with food in the lab.

My department has recently invested in a lab space outfitted with specialized microscopes that is managed by a guy we’ll call “Mark” (not his real name). This space is called a “core lab” because it is shared resource amongst the faculty in the department. It will actually be available for researchers outside of my department as well – these researchers will have to pay a service fee to help pay for Mark’s time. I will also be helping out with this core lab as word gets out and things get busier.

Now, Mark is long in the tooth, meaning he’s worked in a laboratory setting for quite a while. But he’s also, apparently, a bit of a rule bender.

I went into the lab this week to touch base, see how things were going. And he’s sitting there eating .. his lunch … in the lab.

My brain screamed, “What? Tell me I didn’t just see that!”

While I don’t remember my exact words, I did say something like, “You know, you’re not supposed to eat in the lab, right?”

He kind of dodged the question and said “There are always ways to work around rules.”

In my mind’s eye, my jaw dropped open in disbelief.

This is absolutely the wrong thing to say to a person who has been in charge of her research lab’s safety for over twenty years!

Immediately I wondered what other safety rules was he breaking?

I stewed about the situation the rest of the day and into the evening.

My thoughts turned to deep concern. If this comes to the attention of a university environmental health and safety inspector either by a routine inspection or an anonymous tip from someone using the core lab’s services, not only will Mark get in trouble but so will I and so will the department.

My reputation is on the line and I had to do something.

I couldn’t just turn a blind eye to this.

But what to do? My situation is a little precarious since Mark is technically my supervisor in the core lab.

How to approach this without profoundly and adversely affecting our working relationship?

I decided I needed a little backup. So the first thing I did the next morning was call environmental health and safety to confirm that food should not be eaten in this particular type of lab. Chemicals or laboratory bacterial strains contaminating the food wasn’t an issue – there were no chemicals or bacterial cultures used in the lab. However, because human tissues are examined on these microscopes (albeit on glass microscope slides complete with coverslips), the lab falls under a “biosafety level 1” designation.

Which means? You guessed it: no food is allowed in the lab.

With the environmental health and safety rule confirmed, I went into the lab and started with something like, “Mark, I need you to help me out here.”

He was absolutely not happy with what I said after that. He didn’t like the rules encroaching on his creature comforts. And I understand this. It is a pain in the buttocks to have to get up, walk out of the lab and down the hall to get a drink of water.

But I think he realized I was serious about this situation, that I wasn’t about to bend this rule just for him, and that I was willing to take it up the chain of command if I had to. I hated being such a hard ass about safety, but I was not about to let him take me down with him.

He reluctantly agreed to comply. Granted, agreeing to do something and actually doing it are two different things, so time will tell if he really does comply.

To help him out, I found a desk and scooted it down the hallway to an area just outside the lab where he can safely eat his food and sip his drink. Hopefully he’ll use it.

I think that was one of the toughest conversations I’ve ever had to have with a coworker. I’m not sure how the university safety officers do it on a daily basis. My hat off to them!

  1. My lab is also very strict about this rule, the whole university does, and nobody dares to bend it..there are watching eyes everywhere. You did the right thing 🙂

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