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10 Stupid Lab Safety Mistakes

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.

18 Comments

  1. Jacob on October 14, 2017 at 4:47 pm

    Everybody left a huge one out! If you wear your gloves all day long, THEY DO NOT WORK. Gloves is only intended for use for short amounts of time, when you work with a dangerous chemical. The pores will open when they have been on for too long (the time interval depends on which type of glove you are using)

  2. Andreas Mueller on July 12, 2017 at 9:59 pm

    A Chiropractor running an Analytical Lab was pouring chromic acid from a 5 gallon glass jug on the cement floor through a filtering funnel. The filter filled up really quick & he tried to carefully put the glass jug down on the cement floor. The concussion from that luckily didn’t break the jug put the bump sent a shock wave through the solution & it shot some chromic acid up out of the neck into his eyes. He was wearing contacts without safety glasses & went running to the eye wash station to flush his face, thereby washing the contacts down the drain.

  3. Harris Morrison on June 28, 2017 at 3:36 pm

    Open toed sandals in the lab

    Adding to the glove comments, people wearing a glove but no labcoat!

    People contemplating some hypothetical problem while chewing on a pencil which they just picked up from the bench!!

    Forgetting if you add water to acid or acid to water with explosive results!!!

    Being given an old bottle of P.N.T. with crystals around the neck of the bottle and being told to open it. I leave that one to your imagination.

  4. Jean-François Boisvert on May 22, 2017 at 3:56 pm

    I have seen a lot of people wearing their labcoat open, while working in a lab. It may be more confortable, that way, but it is not very good laboratory practice.

  5. Diane Chermak on May 7, 2015 at 10:53 pm

    My personal favorite: Saving money on cheap “autoclave” buckets. HDPE will totally melt down during a gravity cycle.

  6. Sapinder on August 25, 2011 at 10:55 am

    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.

  7. Seena on October 8, 2009 at 6:54 am

    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..

  8. Anja on July 3, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    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).

  9. Roberto on June 30, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    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…

  10. zooni on June 22, 2009 at 11:41 am

    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)

  11. Melodee Patterson | Virtual Assistant on June 16, 2009 at 9:08 pm

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

  12. Jeff on June 16, 2009 at 8:09 am

    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!

  13. K. J. Bown on June 16, 2009 at 7:13 am

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

  14. Kurt on June 16, 2009 at 4:53 am

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

  15. Paul N. Hengen on June 15, 2009 at 9:01 pm

    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 😮
    (2) tease a mad pitbull
    (3) squeeze the juice out of a tractor [Eddie Izzard]

  16. Sean S on June 15, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    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.

  17. Paul N. Hengen on June 15, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    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…

  18. Josh Turse on June 15, 2009 at 6:41 am

    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.

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