Labs are a dangerous place, full of nasty chemicals and harmful biological materials. Yet so many people are flippant about their own personal safety (and the safety of others) when working in this hazardous environment. One way in which people make lab work more dangerous is the misuse of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Below are some of the most common laboratory PPE sins.
- Not wearing lab coats. This always boggles my mind. Lab coats provide a barrier between that nasty chemical you are using and your clothes and skin. If you spill something nasty on your lab coat, it can be cleaned or disposed of easily. If you do the same to your clothes, you may be faced with throwing away your favourite pair of jeans. Also, you never know what chemicals (especially those fine powders) might be sticking to your clothes that you don’t realize. This means you could be exposing others such as family members and friends to these nasties. As well as putting your lab coat on, you should remember to button it up. A lab coat can only protect you and your clothes if it is actually covering them.
- Wearing lab coats outside of the lab. Many labs have separate writing areas away from the bench where people can read papers, do computer work and grab a snack. This place should be a hazard-free zone. Yet I’ve seen many people sitting at their desks wearing lab coats. I don’t want my tuna sandwich with a hint of SDS, so while it’s good your using your lab coat, remember to take it off before entering write-up areas.
- Wearing the wrong type of lab coat. Lab coats can come in several varieties, so make sure you are wearing one suitable for your needs. This is particularly important when using dangerous equipment like UV transilluminators, where you need the lab coat to cover all parts not covered by other PPE (like gloves and face masks). I know someone who had quite a nasty ‘sunburn’ from using a UV transilluminator without wearing a lab coat that buttoned up to the neck.
- Not wearing gloves. This is my biggest pet peeve in the lab, as it makes no sense at all. If you are using dangerous chemicals and working with harmful biological materials, why would you not want to protect your hands? Gloves don’t only protect your hands, you touch your face, doorknobs and food with your hands many times a day and not wearing gloves can lead to you contaminating yourself and others.
- Re-using disposable gloves. They are disposable for a reason. If you get acrylamide or any other dangerous chemical onto your gloves, you should dispose of them and get a fresh pair. Otherwise everything you touch will also get a nice dose of acrylamide, again potentially contaminating yourself and others.
- Not taking off gloves when moving between areas. Labs aren’t all perfectly set up, with equipment being located in different rooms and even on different floors. If you need to move between lab areas during an experiment (e.g. to visualise your DNA gels,) take a spare pair (or two) of gloves with you in your lab coat pocket and remove one of your gloves to allow you to open doors without contaminating them.
- Misusing insulated gloves. Insulated gloves protect you from cold when digging through the -80oC or taking up cells from the liquid nitrogen. These gloves do not protect you from liquid nitrogen itself, so don’t go plunging your hand into the liquid or allow any to pour over your hands when removing trays, or you will end up with some very nasty burns.
- Not wearing safety glasses or visors. Your eyes are precious and also very vulnerable. Not all lab experiments or tasks require the use of eye protection, but sometimes it is vital to protect your eyes and face. When you are doing experiments where you risk spilling or splashing hazardous reagents into your eyes, it is better to be safe and wear a pair of goggles. They might not be the most attractive of PPE, but they are important in protecting your sight.
- Wearing safety glasses instead of visors. There are some circumstances where safety glasses are not sufficient, and you need to wear a full face visor. UV transilluminators again come to mind. While protecting your eyes from the UV exposure is important, you also need to protect your face as well, or you risk getting a very nasty ‘sunburn’. In addition, many lab safety goggles will not protect you from UV exposure. Make sure you know when glasses are sufficient and when full visors are required.
- Incorrect clothing. While not strictly PPE, your clothes (particularly your shoes) also play a role in your safety. The main sin here is the wearing of open-toed shoes in the lab, both men and women. Wearing open-toed shoes (or shoes where a large portion of your feet are exposed) leave your feet vulnerable to spilled chemicals and acid burns. High heels are also an issue, because if you struggle to walk in them you risk tripping, which can be very dangerous in a lab.
These are my pet peeves of misused PPE, what are yours?