Thursday, September 22, 2011

Safety; It's not to be taken lightly

I'll begin by saying, I definitely need to pay closer attention to the various safety concerns in a lab.  All too often we sacrifice our own safety in order to get things done quicker; cutting corners, thinking I'll be careful.  And then, bam, you have an incident that you regret.  Fortunately, I haven't had to deal with this first hand, but what I'm going to describe here happened close enough to home that it caused me to pause for a minute and evaluate my own techniques and protocols in the lab.

Perhaps some of you are aware of a recent incident at the University of Chicago, where a scientist became infected with the same strain of bacteria that is being studied in the lab (B. cereus).  According to information published on the Science Magazine site, the infected individual was not even working with the microbe but may have transfered it to an uncovered wound via a spill (  I believe the infected person is going to be fine and needed to undergo surgery to remove the infected tissue, so that's positive.  As a result of this (and another incident just 2 years ago), the PI is moving these sets of experiments to Argonne National Labs in the Howard T. Ricketts lab, where they are also running experiments on Plague, MRSA, and Anthrax.

It was roughly two years ago to the day that a researcher in this same Laboratory at the University of Chicago died from exposure to an attenuated form of Y. pestis.  In this case, the researcher may have felt a bit safer than he was, since the strain was determined to be non-lethal.  His co-workers admitted that his glove wearing practices were inconsistent at best.  It just so happened that he also had an undetected/untreated condition known as hemochromatosis, or an overload of iron in the blood.  It may have been this overload of iron that allowed the attenuated version of the bacteria to become virulent (  

So, as you can see, we have plenty of examples of the potential threat to our safety and those around us, and we should use examples like these, not to place blame on those who made mistakes, but to remind us of the importance to slow down and think about what we're doing and what we need to do to stay safe.  There's really just two reasons why incidents like this happen; Carelessness or Ignorance.  You have to be aware of what you're working with.  Ask questions if you're unsure.  Educate yourself.  Nothing is so important that you cannot take the extra steps to make sure you and those around you are protected as much as possible.  

Those who work in your safety office are not out to get you.  They're here to educate first and foremost, and yes, to enforce standard operating procedures for your protection.  In perusing our own safety department's web site, I stumbled upon this - Shared Responsibility.


Environmental Health and Safety provides services and support for efficient, effective, and compliant work practices, while promoting a culture of shared responsibility by students, faculty, staff and visitors for a healthy, safe, and environmentally sound educational and research community at the University of Chicago. 

And specifically regarding Laboratory Safety, they have this to add:
Research is one of the two main missions of the University, the other being education. Lab personnel are integral in the creation and maintenance of a safe laboratory environment. They are responsible for ensuring safety in laboratories and lab support areas on campus and within the Medical Center. This responsibility includes:
  • Being familiar with University emergency procedures;
  • Responding appropriately in the event of an emergency;
  • Being familiar with Environmental Health and Safety policies and procedures;
  • Maintaining a safe laboratory environment;
  • Knowing the hazards of the materials and/or equipment being used;
  • Following all safety procedures in the laboratory environment;
  • Selecting, using and understanding the limitations of personal protective equipment;
  • Reporting any unsafe conditions to your supervisor and/or Environmental Health and Safety; and
  • Reporting any job related injuries or illnesses to your supervisor or Human Resources Administrator immediately; and
  • Participating in all required safety training.

So, hopefully if you've taken the time to read through this, you can certainly take the time to re-evaluate the procedures in your lab.  Make a plan to educated your staff and those around you, and open the lines of communication between your lab and those who have been tasked with the safety of your institution.  Stay safe!