Debbie Knight

Archive for the ‘lab safety’ Category

Clearing the dust…

In lab safety on February 12, 2014 at 3:49 pm


Usually when we weigh out chemicals in the lab, we use a little brush to clean off the balance. But now that we work with nanoparticles, the brush is not the right tool for the job.

Nanoparticles are tiny – in our case, really tiny particles, measuring  one hundred nanometers or less in diameter.  To put their size in perspective, they are roughly the same size range as many viruses, including the common cold virus. They can are much smaller than a bacteria (one hundred to a thousand times smaller). And, in terms of a typical human hair, you would have to line up a thousand or so nanoparticles (each one hundred nanometers in diameter) to span the width of a human hair.

When we weigh nanoparticles, they are like a really fine dust.

And this dust doesn’t really clean up very easily, at least with a brush.

So, we’ve resorted to using small squares of Swiffer Dusters™ dusting cloths.


And let me tell you, they work great!

And not just for cleaning up nanoparticle “dust.”

It works great for cleaning up standard lab chemicals as well – especially dyes like crystal violet which are notoriously difficult to clean off an analytical balance. I’ve weighed this dye out, thought I’d cleaned the balance thoroughly, only to find I hardly made a dent in cleaning it up.

I can’t believe my lab didn’t discover these little gems earlier!

Swiffer Dusters™ dusting cloths, not just for house cleaning any more.


Photo of the Week

In lab safety, photo log on March 19, 2013 at 9:00 am



I was in my old stomping grounds — a building where my lab had been located some ten years ago.

I wasn’t looking for it, but I found this safety sign I had made (and posted).

Still there.

In the safety shower area.

The reason I put up this sign was that the nearby labs used this space to stash their cart. Now, I will admit, if this weren’t a designated safety shower, it would’ve made a great place to store a cart. However, if you are on fire or have some chemical burning your eyes, the last thing you’d want to do is take the time to shove a cart out of the way before dousing yourself in water.

Hence the sign.

I’m amazed it’s still there.

Annual lab safety training not taken lightly in my lab

In lab safety on December 21, 2012 at 11:00 am

safety training

Every year the labs at my university are required to review laboratory safety.

Not a bad idea.

Sometimes we need a reminder just what we should (and shouldn’t be) doing in the lab to be safe.

For example, someone on campus placed a shelf in a metal cabinet specially designed for chemical storage. The shelf seemed to fit but because it was from a different manufacture, it actually didn’t. The shelf fell onto the shelf below. Glass bottles broke. And chemicals mixed that shouldn’t have mixed.

The result? A lab fire.

Here’s a photo that Environmental Health and Safety posted in its newsletter.

lab fire aftermath

Not a pretty sight.

That’s why reviewing lab safety is so important — to prevent such devastating lab accidents.

In my lab, the training duties fall on me.

Happy, happy, joy, joy for me.

We cover general lab safety such as where the fire extinguishers and eye wash stations are located (it’s not like they’ve moved since last year, but it’s a good reminder).

We cover chemical safety as well as biological safety.

And, because we sometimes work with radioactive materials, we review how to safely handle radioactivity.

Every year I pull out the folder with the handouts and quizzes.

And every year I’ve considered paring them down. Cutting corners.

But when I start to look for what I could whittle out, I find that everything covered in these handouts is pretty important and should stay.

In addition to the handouts, there’s a presentation – something I hate giving, even though it’s informal.

One of my office mates said he just gives his lab a brief handout and a short quiz. No presentation. If his lab returns their quiz, they get automatically get a 100%. He doesn’t even look at their answers. Zip-zop, it’s done.

I don’t subscribe to this method of training.

There’s no guarantee the handout is read thoroughly.

I find that people tend to scan the handout for the quiz answers, leaving the rest unread. (And yes, I have been guilty of this as well).

The handout gets chucked into a dark desk corner never to be looked at again.

Yes, I’m a safety nut (you would know this especially if you read my other lab safety posts).

I run a pretty tight ship when it comes to safety.

I certainly don’t want any accidents happening on my watch — especially if it is due to simple negligence.

It would reflect poorly on me, the lab safety officer, as well as my boss.

But it’s not all drudgery.

There is a silver lining.

The training coincides with the lab’s holiday lunch!

A great way to take the “ugh!” out of the training.

And a great incentive to finish the open-note quiz quickly.  🙂

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!

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.