Nature: Lab Safety

Nature: Lab Safety (podcast transcript)

“Derek Thorne: OK then, as so finally this week I gather that the Nature news team has been looking into the risk associated with working in a chemistry lab. Nature 441, 560–561 (1 June 2006)

Jo Marchant: Yes, that’s right. There was a very serious accident related to chemistry a few months ago at the National Institution of Higher Learning in Chemistry which is in Mulhouse in France. It actually killed a 41-year-old photochemist. And in general that kind of reminded everyone, I think, what the dangers of research can be. So we just wanted to have a look and see, is chemistry really that dangerous? Is it more risky than other fields and what are the main risks in chemistry?

Derek Thorne: And so what have you found there?

Jo Marchant: The main thing we found is that things have certainly changed a lot in the last 20 years. We spoke to a lot of safety officers and a lot of chemists who all said that compared to up to the 1960s, where you had some quite startling practices, mouth pipetting is one, washing hands with benzene, which is now known to be a carcinogen, is another. After a lot of occupational health legislation that came in in the 1970s, things are much safer. But still we were told that there are particular areas where chemistry labs could be doing a lot better. Labs are much too crowded. And waste disposal was the other big issue, most chemistry labs have open bottles where solvents are dumped and it’s virtually impossible to say what could happen in those mixtures. When we spoke to the industry it sounds as though the accident rate in academia is much, much higher than in industry. In academia it’s more people working alone late at night and being slightly macho even about safety glasses or following particular rules and regulations.”

I heard this on the Nature podcast (good stuff to hear in there). They are totally correct. I’ve been in academic, government, and industry labs. Academics are the absolute worst about safety. Government labs are a little better, and industry are the best. I guess that if you are just getting paid to do your work, you are less likely to take risks. Also it is easier to be fired for doing it wrong in industry. Academics don’t usually have any regulatory group checking in on them to make sure they are safe, so other than personal risk aversion, there is nothing to encourage or enforce safety.


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