Jan 23, 2010

RBF Teaches: Lab Safety

While it really is impossible to go through all aspects of lab safety in the space of one short blog I still find that it is indeed quite necessary, especially when you lay out a number of reaction procedures initially and direct young chemists to your site for demonstrations and support on fundamentals on lab life. I also was greatly inspired by excimer and his fellows and followers at CBC who recently compiled a great topic on lab safety which ranged through various points and all of them very valid. So, for those of you who want a straightforward rundown of exactly what was covered in that blog I hope that you will find that here. Along with (hopefully) a few pointers from MSG who, IMHO, is perhaps one of the most pendantic, but also the most safe and efficient chemists I know [MSG edit: why thank you ;)]. So let's get started.

  1. Cleanliness is next to godliness in the lab - In my opinion it is vital that you have a clean area before you start work, this will prevent you accidentally bumping over glassware, spilling solutions and give you a good idea just what things are needed in the hood for the reaction to begin. [MSG edit: the best time to clean up is when you're waiting for your reaction to finish (rather than heading straight for the next free computer to play restaurant city on facebook). Clean up whatever glassware and equipment you used and any mess you've made. Then read ahead and prepare whatever pieces of glassware, reagents and equipment you need for your work up. This will help you save time (so you can go home and play restaurant city), get your experiment to run more smoothly (which means better marks), and being organised means less likely to rush and get into accidents.]
  2. Preparation is key -Before you start, before you even enter the lab, know what you are doing and know it well. It is ok to have your reaction procedure with you while you are doing the experiment but what is more important is knowing what each step means in terms of the reaction (e.g. why do you add the water slowly, to quench? so it doesn't explode in your face! That's why!). If you are planning on scaling up a reaction then remember that the bad things that can happen on a small scale can increase exponentially on large scale.
  3. Always do your MSDS - this is important to understand what you are working with and although it is on an industrial scale and a lot of the time not relevant to lab scale it still outlines the dangers of chemicals, sometimes it may be wrong or leave out important facts. [MSG edit: puuuhlease use the fumehoods!]
  4. Lab safety equipment is vital - I know it can get hot or the goggles can hurt your nose but imagine losing your eye because a piece of glassware explodes or you spill a solution of corrosive liquid on you and the only barrier is your shirt. Therefore, Labcoat, Goggles and Gloves are all VITAL! [MSG edit: Ok guys all this gear is not just for show - you've gotta be a complete idiot to think you're invulnerable coz you're not! From most important to least important, I'd say it goes goggles, enclosed shoes, gloves, labcoat. REMEMBER, you can be the safest chemist in the world, but you still need to protect yourself against accidents caused by people around you!]
  5. Check your equipment - Star cracks in RBFs are a good one to look out for (implosion from high vac is not something you want to experience). Make sure your heater stirrer is working (this will save time if it isn't and you have to rearrange your whole experiment). Blocked needles can lead to big problems (don't force a syring if it isn't moving, you will probably end up with a facefull of reagent).
  6. Know your exits, showers, eye wash stations and fire extinguishers - May sound simple but the nearest shower may save both your skin and your life, just pray it never comes to that. Make sure before you use any lab that you know where they are so that you can find them with your eyes closed...literally!
  7. Never work alone - This is one that is often not obeyed by organic chemists. It is never wise to be in a lab on your own. That other person in the lab may just be the only one capable of pulling your arse out of a really bad situation. If they aren't there and things go wrong start praying.
  8. Ask! - If you haven't done a procedure before and you are unsure, a second opinion is great to have. Whether its an experienced post-doc or even a co-worker to just watch over while you do it, it is better to have someone else there if you are not confident.
  9. Don't Rush - The expression haste makes waste is often used and seldom heard. If you are rushing an experiment to get home on time you are more likely to break something and cause yourself more time and potential danger. Take it slow and get it right and don't feel that you are too slow, there is no such thing in chemistry. [MSG edit: In fact, if you rush, stuff up the experiment (which usually happens), you then need to repeat the experiment, which ends up taking up considerably more time than if you did it slowly but properly the first time around. 'Slow and steady wins the race'.]
  10. Documentation - Although it really isn't a safety issue, taking notes and making sure every step is documented is very important. It may be that another researcher will need your notes to do the same experiment, or you might one day want to publish your procedure, or if you make a mistake, you may be able to go back and see where you went wrong. Documentation people is what makes you a scientist! [MSG edit: Despite how hard you convince yourself, you won't remember what you did in the lab the day before (or even 3 hours before). Document what you did when you have spare time, for example, while waiting for a reaction to complete or while waiting for rotary evaporation to finish.]
  11. Checklist - This can be similar to your documentation but more of a mental thing. Go back over these points - do you know what you are doing? What can go wrong? What to do if it does go wrong? Make sure you can answer these questions before you start as well as while you are doing the experiment. You might feel indestructible but believe me you are flesh and blood and both of those can be peeled away with a spill of t-BuLi.
  12. Focus - stay aware of the experiment while you are running it. If you can leave it that is fine but remember it is there and what can go wrong and don't lose your focus on what you are doing, if something is bothering you fix it before you proceed. Don't get cocky. [MSG edit: Concentrate on what you're doing. If you're focused on your job, you're much less likely to be caught napping and panicking when accidents do happen.]
I know it all sounds very dramatic, and it kind of is, but remember its your life and your body on the line every day. It may sound like a dull job but the risks are there for the next careless person to find. (We really should get paid more) Get lots of sleep, stay focussed even if it is a boring column (these can shatter in your face) and at the end of the day always be wary of liquid oxygen in your cold trap.

[MSG edit: I don't know if you kinda got my drift, but safety and experimental success (at least in the undergraduate lab where every experiment is supposed to work) are strongly correlated. If you want good marks, then you want your experiment to go well, which means that you need to be prepared, focused, ask for help when needed etc. These are precisely the same sort of things you do in order to practice lab safety, so even if you don't care about your health or your colleagues', at least do the above for the sake of your own marks!]


  1. This post will help a lot many people as related to the safety aspects in a lab. As this will guide them a lot in a lot many procedures.

  2. Safety is the most important aspect while performing in labs. This post is a great one and with all these safety aspects, i hope this would really help many people.

  3. I worked alone since all undergrads finished with their semester.. I'm the only postgrad running the lab :(

  4. Well, no situation is perfect but it is definitely not ideal to work alone. What happens if you seriously hurt yourself? Noone will know until you have bled out. But I guess in your situation there is no remedy except possibly asking your boss to check in on you at regular intervals.

  5. haha yes, he comes almost everyday at random time, sometime at 8pm to check if i was still alive or at 7am if I fell asleep in the lab ;)

  6. sheesh guideline no.1 is a bit hard to live by

    1. If the lab isn't messy, you aren't working hard enough ;D

  7. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting. Many thanks.

    Work Safety Equipment