To stay safe when working alone and out of office hours, seek permission and follow your institute’s local rules. Log your hours and know the location of lab safety equipment. Inform someone if you’re working late, and try to coordinate work with peers. Avoid risky procedures during solo sessions and never work through the night due to impaired decision-making. Avoid driving home when exceptionally tired, and keep your lab access cards around your neck to prevent being locked out.

Sometimes, you will have to work alone in the lab. I don’t mean over lunch when the lab is quiet, but out of regular office hours when it’s very late or early. 

In many institutes, working out of office hours is allowed. Depending on how late or early it is, there might not be anyone else in your lab or building to call you out if you accidentally do something dangerous or stupid. 

Foremost, try to avoid working out of office hours as much as possible. Not only will this be safer, but it will also benefit your mental health and work–life balance. Hard work and motivation don’t equate to working all hours under the sun.

However, I have completed a Ph.D. and know that, for peace, instrument availability, avoiding your supervisor during a results drought, and simply getting your research done, working alone in the lab during evenings and weekends can be great.  

So, here is my advice on safely working out of office hours in the lab.

Make Sure You Have Permission

As I have just said, there will be times when you have to work alone during unsociable hours.

Ensure you request and receive permission to work out of office hours from the relevant authorities at your institute beforehand. You will need to complete some forms that tell you the local rules. 

Often, first-year Ph.D. students won’t be allowed out-of-hours access on account of their relative inexperience.

Log Your Hours and Follow the Local Rules

There will probably be a sign-in and sign-out procedure for your building. Be sure to add your name and signature. Not so the blame can be confidently applied if there’s an accident or the building burns down, but so there’s a record of occupants for first responders in the case of an emergency. 

Recording the times you started and stopped your work also means you know how many hours you’re entitled to take off in lieu. 

Know the Location of Essential Safety Equipment

It pays to know the layout of your lab and research building. Make sure you know where to find the following:

  1. Fire alarm.
  2. Fire extinguisher.
  3. Gas shut-off button.
  4. Power shut-off button.
  5. Chemical spill kit.
  6. Sterile eye wash solution.
  7. Evac chair.
  8. First aid kit.

Figure 1 shows what these items look like.

Advice for Working Alone and Out of Office Hours in the Lab
Figure 1. Examples of common essential safety equipment in a laboratory or research building. (Image credit: Thomas Warwick.)

Generally, the fire alarm, fire extinguisher, gas shut-off button, power shut-off button, first aid kit, and sterile eye wash solution are at the front of the lab near the main entrance.

The chemical spill kit contains items that enable you to clean up a chemical spill if it is safe to, and there should be clear signage highlighting its location. Don’t clean up chemical spills that you aren’t confident dealing with.

Evac chairs enable mobility-impaired individuals to evacuate a multistory building quickly and safely in an emergency. They are usually in the stairwells of the building. You will need to get trained to operate these, and training sessions are typically run at regular intervals or on request.

Be Vigilant and Ensure Somebody Knows Your Location

If you’re working late into the night, ensure a friend, colleague, or partner knows this and can contact you. 

Also, consider coordinating your work with somebody else who must work out of hours. That way, you can look out for each other.

Keep your phone on you and ensure you know the phone number for security, for your safety, and to protect the lab. Research buildings teem with valuable kit, and break-ins happen.

In my experience of Universities in the UK, many campuses are also public parks. Occasionally you find unsavory characters loitering around, especially on campuses in the middle of big cities.

Many modern science buildings are constructed with lots of glass. This can make you night-blind when looking out—you can’t see out, but anyone outside can see in—which can be extremely unsettling when you have to go and unlock your bike at midnight to cycle home.

Similarly, don’t let anyone you don’t recognize into the building out of office hours, and politely challenge them if they try by asking to see their security pass or credentials or asking them to contact security.

Avoid Dangerous Procedures

As a rule of thumb, when it’s extremely late or early, or the building is empty, don’t perform any procedures that pose more risk than office work. 

Avoid all work where being discovered quickly in the event of an accident is crucial for a good prognosis—for example, handling large quantities of liquid nitrogen and anesthetic gasses. 

It’s probably a good idea to avoid working with a Bunsen burner, too. I know someone who accidentally left one burning all night while they were tucked up in bed. 

I once had a scary experience where the gas tap got stuck open, and when I tried to close it, the entire tap assembly unscrewed from the bench top (I presume they are reverse-threaded). I turned the gas to the lab off using the gas shut-off button near the exit and then fixed the tap, but the experience woke me up.

The simplest and safest procedures seem to have a way of going wrong when there’s no one around to lend a hand.

Never Work Through the Night

Never work through the night because your body enters a Window of Circadian Low (WOCL) between approximately 2 and 6 am. 

Your decision-making skills are impaired during this period because your mind and body are adapted for and ready to sleep. Therefore, incidents and accidents are more likely to happen between these times. 

Some industries in which health and safety are critical, such as aviation, organize and restrict work based on the WOCL. It’s a good idea to impose this on yourself. 

There are, however, exceptional circumstances where you may need to work through the night. 

For example, I used to require remote access to the synchrotron Diamond Light Source to study protein crystals. Diamond is a round-the-clock facility, and access is regionally assigned based on criteria that aren’t relevant to this article, but it is often during the night. 

My lab group remotely accessed Diamond via a computer in our office and thus needed to be in our research building overnight.

If you have to do something similar, make sure your building manager is fully aware of the situation, notify them of any upcoming night shifts, and make sure they know who will be in the building overnight.

Avoid Driving When Exceptionally Tired

Sometimes, you will work out of office hours straight after your regular working day. Such days are long, straining, and leave you exceptionally tired when finished.

Avoid driving home when you know this will happen, especially if it’s a long drive. Instead, try and have someone pick you up. Or use public transport. 

I’m not being overly cautious here. Once, a lab buddy and I visited an off-site facility and worked through the night before driving several hours on the motorway home. There was no option for accommodation where we were working. (There was also no option to avoid the work either.)

We pulled out onto a ring road and were pulled over by the police, sirens and all, in a patrol car. The officers had seen us pull out and considered it unsafe. My buddy had an embarrassing few moments in the back of a police car placating the officers, had to pay a fine, and go on a Driver Retraining Course.

A cautionary tale for anyone.

Keep Your Access Card Around Your Neck

If your lab requires card access, attach the card to a lanyard around your neck and keep it there because there’s nothing worse than making all the effort, preparation, and commitment to out-of-hours work only to lock your card in the lab with no way to get it until the next day. 

In many institutes, including those with Biosafety Level 2 labs and above, access to specific corridors is restricted and requires card access. Great—until you leave your card in the lab at 10 pm to chill out in the office while your experiment is running.

Working Alone and Out of Office Hours Summarized

That’s my collected advice on working alone and out of office hours in the lab. 

Don’t do anything dangerous, keep your access card on you, don’t let strangers enter the building, and don’t get pulled over by the police.

I’ve fallen foul of most of these at some stage, but, hopefully, you don’t! 

For more information on staying safe in the lab, check out Bitesize Bio’s Lab Safety Archives.

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