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10 Stupid Lab Safety Mistakes

by on 15th of June, 2009 in Lab Safety

Keeping safe in the lab really only requires one thing: common sense. But if you look at what people are doing in the lab, you might think that that common sense isn't so common after all.

What are the most stupid things you have seen people do in the lab to put the safety of themselves and others at risk? Suzanne and I put our heads together to come up with 10 of the worst and most common examples of lab safety stupidity that we had witnessed (or committed!!).

Here they are… please feel free to add your own in the comments section..

1. Not reading the MSDS. None of us would ever use a chemical without checking the MSDS, would we? [Nick: I hang my head in shame at this point].

It is easy to get blase about safety and think that MSDS's are as neurotic as an over-protective mother. After all, the MSDS for water is pretty scary.

But sometimes even the most neurotic over-protective mother talks some sense. Take my example. I was working with a potent mutagen called Ethyl methanesulphonate (EMS) for several weeks – taking care to wear gloves and a lab coat at all times – before I happened to glance at the MSDS and notice that it was slightly volatile at room temperature, so I should have been handling it in a fume hood.

EMS is a potent mutagen and tetratogen, however I took a small crumb of comfort from the fact that is is only a "potential" carcinogen and that "It can induce mutations at a rate of 5×10-4 to 5×10-2 per gene without substantial killing." ….I should be ok then (!)

2. Lab coats anywhere other than the lab (or not wearing a lab coat). Lab coats are there to keep nasty stuff off our clothes, so it's likely that there are nasty things on our lab coats. Wearing lab coats in the office, coffee room or anywhere else that's not the lab is a bad idea, because you'll transfer the nasty stuff in there too.

It is very easy to convince yourself that you don't actually get that much stuff on your lab coat. But a friend of mine (cheers Ian!) once gave me a great example that shows how wrong you'd be…

Labs that make printer dye look pretty much like the lab you work in. Scientists are weigh, pipette and pour chemicals together while wearing lab coats, gloves and safety glasses.

The difference is that everying (and I mean everything) in the lab is covered in dye. The lab coats are covered in dye, the benchtops, the equipment… everything.

This illustrates that it is impossible to work with chemicals/bugs/whatever all day and not get them onto your lab coat (or your clothes if you are not wearing a lab coat!!).

So if you wear your lab coat anywhere else, you will certainly be taking whatever you were working with, with you.

And if you aren't wearing a lab coat you'll be bringing it home. I hope you aren't doing the cooking… E.coli relish anyone?

3. Not wearing safety glasses/goggles. This one doesn't need too much arguement. You only get one pair of eyes and during your career you will definitely get glass/acid/powder of some sort in your eyes. If you are not wearing safety glasses, you might be lucky and avoid injury… but you might not.

4. Goggles/safety specs are not UV shields. We all know that UV transilluminators can cause us serious damage if we don't protect ourselves. So isn't it amazing how many people seem to think that their standard googles will protect them from UV? Sunburnt retina are not a good look.

5. UV transilluminator: eyes protected – sleeves = sunburn. Still on UV transilluminators, we have seen people who while sensibly taking the time to protect their eyes with a UV shield forget about their hands and arms and happily cut out their bands without a gloves, sleeves, or even factor 50 sunblock.

6. Balancing tubes "by eye" in superspeed centrifuges. Let's say it again… superspeed centrifuges (i.e. those big ones that you use to spin your midiprep at 15,000xg and look like old washing machines) must be balanced by weighing the tubes on an accurate balance and adjusting their weights to within 0.1g. It is not sufficient to judge by eye whether the amount of liquid in the tubes is the same.

If you don't do this, disasters like this (see number 4 in that article) can happen.

7. Eating at/near the bench. People actually do this? They might as well be mouth-pipetting (oh, wait – they do that too?). Remember the printer dye lab above? You will definitely be eating some of whatever you are working with. No-one needs extra protein that much.

8. Using the lab as a kitchen. Do you know anyone who uses the lab microwave to heat up food, the fridge to store food, or the distilled water to make coffee? Amazingly, we do.

9. Opening Beta-mercaptoethanol anywhere outside of a fume hood = BAD! Many of us will use beta-mercaptoethanol every day, but don't cut corners with it… always open it in the fume hood.

Beta-Mercaptoethanol is considered a "severe" poison, causing "irritation to the nasal passageways and respiratory tract upon inhalation, vomiting and stomach pain through ingestion, and potentially fatal absorption if it contacts the skin".

Opening it outside the fume hood is bad for you and bad for everyone in the building.

10. Head in the fume hood (or in laminar flow). This is my personal favourite because it is so stupid… and because I used to do it without realising it until someone pointed it out.

Fume hoods can only protect you,  and laminar flow hoods can only protect the stuff you are working with, if you keep your head out of the hood.

I once paid for this stupid habit with a weekend where everything smelled and tasted of paraformaldehye. Yum.

Ok so that is our top 10… now over to you.

About the author: Nick Oswald
I started Bitesize Bio on a Macbook on my kitchen table in 2007 while in my 7th year of working as a molecular biologist in biotech. My aim was to share the know-how that I had acquired from the school of hard-knocks in the lab, so that others could learn from my mistakes and small victories. Nowadays my mission is to facilitate the gathering of hardcore know-how from whole spectrum of bioscientists and share it here on Bitesize Bio to create a super-mentor that any bioscientist can turn to for much-needed guidance.

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15 thoughts on “10 Stupid Lab Safety Mistakes”

  1. Josh Turse says:

    You left one off – wearing gloves outside the lab. Presumably you wear gloves to protect you from whatever you were handling – protect everyone else by removing your gloves when you leave the lab. I see this everyday – even at a national lab.

  2. Here's my short list:

    1. Answering the lab phone with gloves on.

    2. Using plastic test tubes with chemicals that eat plastic.

    3. Using parafilm to cover test tubes (like above).

    4. Picking up bottles by the bottle cap (probably loose).

    5. Unlabeled reagents (my pet peeve) "Oh, I'll just put
    this in the fridge overnight. I know what it is…"
    (I accidently spilled something gross on my hands that
    stained them red. The person who put the unlabeled and
    uncovered beaker in the fridge was no where to be found!)

    6. Don't forget face and neck protection from UV. I know
    someone who got more than a spray-on tan. He burned his
    face and neck. His raccoon eyes were just fine though…

  3. Sean S says:

    Here's one: leaving a bunsen burner on while you run off to do something "just for a minute." A colleague of mine did that once on a Friday afternoon and the burner ran all weekend. He's lucky the entire building didn't burn down.

  4. Oh Yeah,

    NEVER EVER
    (1) leave the top off of a centrifuge rotor when spinning
    … speaking from personal experience, you'll need to
    duck and cover, then explain the mess to everyone :-o
    (2) tease a mad pitbull
    (3) squeeze the juice out of a tractor [Eddie Izzard]

  5. Kurt says:

    "Using the lab as a kitchen" Ultra pure sucrose works great in the coffee!

  6. K. J. Bown says:

    What exactly is a tetratogen – something that makes rodents multiply spontaneously perhaps?

  7. Jeff says:

    I agree with josh on the wearing gloves outside the lab one. A post doc in my lab does this as well as wearing gloves to use communal computers inside the lab. She also wears lab coats outside the lab, opens beta-mercaptoethanol on the bench and washes her office mug in the lab sink. I don't think I'll be learning much off her, other than what not to do!

  8. How about those people who DON'T perform an exorcism when there's obviously demons messing with their lab work?? I mean, come ON!

  9. zooni says:

    1. Opening the lab door with gloves

    2. Working in the lab with open hair.

    3. Touching the hot agarose bottle without gloves (oh i did that once and still feel da pain)

  10. Roberto says:

    My favourite is touching stuff from the -80°C ultrafreezer without gloves. Once your fingers lose sensitivity, you'll never know how far you've gone towards frostbite.
    Until when it's too late, that is.
    Heheheh…

  11. Anja says:

    You forgot the nasty habit to wear one pair of gloves all day long and when asked state : 'but they are clean!'. As the others already stated, this is one of the worst and most annoying habits I know off. I have even see people go to the toilet with gloves! Maybe someone should talk to the makers of CSI and tell them to use proper glove policy in their shows to make people understand that wearing gloves requires to think about how to protect yourself but also protect your colleagues and only wear them when really necessary.

    And another one, leaving the heater/magnetic mixer switched on because your experiment is so important that you can't spent time on trivial stuff as flipping a switch (especially nice if the heater was really hot).

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  14. Seena says:

    People tend to adjust their hair or scratch their face or even eat with their gloves on.They think hard to find out wat could be the cause of the nasty rash on their face..

  15. Avatar of Sapinder says:

    1. I think one must also take care of loosening the caps of the bottles while melting things at high temperatures (like agarose) and at the time of autoclaving. It can really burst on your face. I have seen it many times.
    2. be careful while you sterlize your hands and laminar bench before starting your tissue culture experiments especially with a on bunsen burner or spirit lamp. My spirit wet hands once caught fire on my graduate training sessions.
    3. Never ever discard a match stick into a dustbin after use. It may catch fire.

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