Debbie Knight

Posts Tagged ‘lab safety’

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.  🙂

Photo of the Week

In photo log on December 11, 2012 at 9:30 am


This is a sign I put on the office door (and a few other hallway doors) last week.

Some of my office mates (and their bosses) were forgetting to remove their lab gloves before touching the keypad and door handle.

This is a big no-no with regard to lab (and workplace) safety. At least at my institution.

Lab gloves should not be worn in public spaces.

Why? Any surface touched in the lab could have chemical, biological or radioactive residue that can transfer to lab gloves. That residue can then transfer to surfaces like keypads and door knobs that people touch with bare hands.

Sure the person might have just pulled on a pair of gloves, but there are no assurances that those gloves are goober-free.

So, a gentle reminder to those office mates.

Perhaps I should have rigged the door to deliver a mild electric shock.

Though I might secretly enjoy seeing that, I thought it more humane to start with words.

Photo of the Week

In photo log on November 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Yes, this is a picture of a lab shelving unit.



I certainly thought so, too, until a soon-to-retire professor told me the story behind it.

Apparently the black soot on the side of the shelving unit was the result of a lab fire from years ago.

Someone had stored ether (a highly flammable substance) in a refrigerator. Enough ether evaporated to fill the refrigerator compartment so when the compressor kicked on early one morning: ka-boom!

The refrigerator door blew off.

Flames shot everywhere.

The fire department was called.

And there was quite a bit of damage to the lab.

Luckily, it was early enough in the day that no one was working in the lab, thus no injuries.

The professor’s story certainly makes this boring old shelving unit just a little more interesting. At least to me.

Photo of the Week

In photo log on October 17, 2012 at 11:27 am

I saw this sign in a research building. Although not specified, I’m pretty sure the sign means gloves worn in the laboratory setting and not wooly winter gloves.

Clearly someone has worn lab gloves in the elevator more than once — enough times to motivate someone to write a message in red capital letters — and bolded, underlined for emphasis.

This is a big no-no in the lab safety world. Lab gloves are not meant to be worn in non-lab (or “common”) areas like hallways, offices, stairwells and elevators.

Why? What’s the big deal?

Well, scientists wear gloves to protect themselves from chemicals and biological reagents in the lab. They also wear them to protect experiments — our skin has many things on it that can contaminate a sensitive assay.

So, here’s a scientist, straight from the lab, touching all sorts of doors and buttons that everyone touches. You see a person wandering around in the hallway or getting on the elevator donned in gloves and you wonder what sorts of lab stuff is on those gloves. Sure the gloves could be “clean,” just put on by the researcher. But only the researcher knows that.

Of course, hallways and elevators aren’t the only problem areas. I’ve seen people wear their lab coat (and gloves) into public restrooms. Not the brightest thing to do. Those researchers risk getting all kinds of bathroom germs on their lab coat (germs that could contaminate their  experiments). But, more importantly, that lab coat also drags possible contaminants (chemical, biological or radioactive) from the lab into the restroom. Now everyone has been unwittingly exposed to lab “stuff.”

As unbelievable as it sounds, a sign had to be posted on the restroom doors on our floor to remind people to check their lab coats, gloves, and masks at the door.

These safety rules are supposedly taught to all lab personnel.

Apparently someone didn’t get the memo.

And that about “covers” it

In research log on September 20, 2012 at 9:30 am

So yesterday, I posted the Photo of the Week of a lab chair enshrouded in black plastic and green labeling tape. A pragmatic way to address lab safety when working with biohazardous materials. Specifically, no fabric-covered chairs are allowed in a biosafety level 2 designated laboratory.

My lab had two chairs, used in a desk area, that were fabric covered. Something we finally had to address after a lab safety inspection.

The chairs in question were great lab chairs. We didn’t want to cover them in a black plastic trash bag secured with duct tape.

I considered clear plastic vinyl — you know, the stuff with which some people cover their sofas. But when I went to the fabric store, the fine print said that this was flammable. Not something that we would want in the lab where safety is a huge concern.

I did find some non-flammable black vinyl that I thought would work. I bought a yard for $16.99  which turned out to be just enough to cover the two lab chairs.

I should note here that this was only my second attempt at reupholstering and I didn’t do anything “fancy” here.

The learning curve was actually figuring out how to remove the seat forms from the chair. The rest was pretty easy.

First step was to remove the seat bottom and seat back from the lab chair.

The next step was to make a “pattern” to guide how I would cut the vinyl.

Next, I gently “stretched” the vinyl over the seat back form, using a staple gun to hold in place.

Then, I stapled the fabric all around the seat back form. This material wasn’t going anywhere when I was done. Not pretty, but no one will see it (well, except you).

The final product. I’m not entirely happy with the corners, but the vinyl reupholstery looks much better than a black plastic trash bag.

Two lab chairs, reupholstered for less than $20.

They may not look quite as nice as they did in their former fabric-covered selves, but at least they are safe to use anywhere in the lab now.

Photo of the Week

In photo log on September 19, 2012 at 9:00 am

I saw this rather sad-looking chair in a lab down the hall from me.

Why is it enshrouded in a very “fashionable” black trash bag embellished with bright green labeling tape?

Well, this is one way to make a cloth chair usable in a lab that works with biohazardous materials. In case some of the biohazardous material (like blood) is splashed on the chair, the plastic allows for easy cleaning and decontamination. If the biohazard would land on cloth, it would just soak into the fabric. Not a desirable situation in a research laboratory.

Although functional, I think I might have gone with a little more label tape. You know, to really make a statement. 🙂

Danger, Will Robinson!

In observation on September 12, 2012 at 9:00 am


I posted a similar photo yesterday, not because it is a great photo, but because it reminded me of a former boyfriend.

He was a college student majoring in foreign language, specifically Russian. So he knew very little about scientific research.

He absolutely refused to step into the lab in which I worked because a sign like this one was posted on the door. He wouldn’t even knock on the door to let me know he was waiting in the hallway.

He was afraid that he would be contaminated by touching the door or crossing its threshold even though I explained to him it was okay as long as he didn’t touch anything I told him not to touch in the lab.

I couldn’t show him the cells I cultured. Or the microscope slides with pretty staining. Or any aspect of where I worked. No matter how much I reassured him he’d be okay.

So, I guess the sign did a good job.

Maybe a little too good of a job.

Don’t let them see you sweat!

In observation on September 11, 2012 at 9:00 am

There is a lab in my division that will become a new faculty member’s space. The lab door has a radioactive sign posted on it — a remnant from its former occupant.

The reason the lab door still displays this sign is that it takes a lot of work to decommission a lab for radioactivity. We (as in our division and the university safety officer) were waiting to see if the new faculty member would be using radioactivity in any of his experiments — if he did, we would keep the lab posted.

As it turns out, the new faculty member will not be working with radioactivity, so we had to decommission the lab. This isn’t simply a matter of removing the sign from the door. You have to assure that there is no radioactivity present in the lab, including all the working surfaces, cabinets, and equipment in the lab.

Each square foot area of the lab has to be tested for radioactivity. This involves a “wipe test” where a piece of absorbent paper is wiped along the surface and placed in a vial filled with a fluid (called scintillation fluid) that helps intensify the signal that is given off by a radioactive material picked up on the piece of paper. In a large lab, that’s quite a number of wipe tests that must be performed.

I emailed our safety officer to let him know that we needed to close out the lab. And knowing how intensive the process is, I wrote:  I know it’s not the most “fun” aspect of your job.

I was floored when he wrote back and said it actually was a fun part of his job.

No quotation marks around the word “fun.”

No sarcasm.

He seriously liked this part of his job.

Of course, that made me wonder what all his job entailed that having to do such intensive testing would be considered “fun.”

I didn’t have to wonder for long because while he was in our building, he went ahead and performed not only a radiation inspection in the lab to decommission but also in my lab.

Happy day for me:  a surprise inspection!

The inspection covered radiation safety (relatively easy since we haven’t worked with radioactivity in over a year). But the inspection also included biological and chemical safety — which included an extremely long checklist of questions to be answered.

Ah …  it was this part of his job he found not so much “fun.”

And I quickly realized it wasn’t so much “fun” for me either.

The checklist was l-o-n-g.

It took quite a bit of time for both of us.

And anticipating what the next item might be on his list and whether my lab is in compliance made me squirm. And fret. And, of course, sweat.

Yep, this is now officially not my favorite part of my job.

But it wasn’t without some benefit.  While we are careful to follow the safety rules and regulations in my lab, there is always something a good inspector will find that needs correction.

And, yes, this time was no different. We do have a couple of things we will need to address.

But, in the end, I know it will make our lab a safer place to work.

I suppose it’s a good thing these inspections are unscheduled, because I think I’d be tempted to call in “sick” next time. I think I could convince my boss I had come down with a serious case of 24-hour ebola! 🙂