Knowing where safety equipment is located and checking safety supplies regularly can prevent or minimize accidents. Researchers and safety experts offer other tips:
- Know Chemical Characteristics: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides information on material safety data sheets for all chemicals that list associated hazards and instructions on how to handle exposures. For radioisotopes, researchers should know the type of emitted particles, the half-life, and annual exposure limits. It is also important to know the solubility characteristics of chemicals, according to Tom Klingner, principal chemist at Colormetric Laboratories Inc. in Des Plaines, Ill. "If you are dealing with a fat-soluble material, under no circumstances should you wash," he says. "This can increase exposure fivefold. Washing with soap and water wets the skin and drives the material into the body."
"Mixing incompatible chemicals is a potential issue in labs," reports Peter Ashbrook, head of hazardous waste management at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. If glass containers of chemicals are knocked over, will the resulting mixture explode? This happened in October 1996 in a chemistry lab at the University of Texas, Austin. A postdoc reacted elemental sodium with an alcohol and poured it down the drain, not realizing that the sodium would ignite on contact with water. The resulting spark broke a nearby bottle of acetone. "Acetone is a common solvent in many labs. The bottle broke, the material spread, and the fire went out of control," recalls Ashbrook. Storing the acetone in a safer place would have limited damage.
- Protect Against Hepatitis B: Lab workers face a sevenfold increased risk of infection with hepatitis B virus from biological fluids contacted on the job. For this reason, many institutions recommend vaccination. "Here at the University of Pittsburgh, the department of environmental and occupational health provides bloodborne pathogen training to anyone who is exposed to blood," says Rosemary Boone, a professor of biological sciences at Pittsburgh. "This includes administration of hepatitis B vaccine." All of her lab staff and teaching assistants receive the training.
- Understand Insurance: Fay Hansen-Smith, an associate professor of biological sciences at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., learned firsthand about the aftermath of a disaster. Three years ago, a cardboard box stored in a drying oven for glassware beneath an ancient fume hood ignited. The flames traveled through ductwork, destroying much of the building. A confocal microscope that Hansen-Smith and her coworkers had just purchased from Bio- Rad Inc. of Hercules, Calif., sustained heavy water and smoke damage.
Although Bio-Rad extended the warranty, the university's insurance policy required that a "disaster restoration company" evaluate and fix the instrument. That company sent the hardware and the computer portion of the microscope to other companies that used inferior parts, Hansen-Smith says. "The problem was being forced to separate the components of the confocal microscope, when the vendor could easily have come in and gotten us back on track." To avoid problems stemming from having to work with people unfamiliar with scientific equipment, Hansen-Smith suggests that researchers "put a statement in an insurance policy asking that restoration of damage be done by instrument vendors."