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Faculty Forum Papers

October 1977 - Laboratory Safety at O.S.U. - And what to do if you need it or Working may be Hazardous to your Health By

Donald B. Miller

June 10, 1977


"The lack of safety consciousness on the part of many high school and university teachers is practically criminal."

J. R. Leach, Head, Safety Management Program, NIH

"If a university is screaming that it cannot make necessary safety improvements because it is broke, the real reason is probably that it has not given safety a high enough priority. Safety should be a standard part of a school's budget - just like such other essentials as salaries, equipment, office supplies, and heat."

G. T. Gatewood, Environmental Health and Safety Engineer, Harvard University

Here are some examples of unsafe conditions or practices at O.S.U.

Eye protection is frequently not worn, even though workers use strong acids, strong bases, and other hazardous materials, or workers are in areas where there are pressure or vacuum equipment, or grinding or machining operations.
Remedy. Provide workers with safety glasses and require that they always be worn in lab as minimum eye protection. Face shields or goggles should be available for supplemental protection. Plastic eyeglass-type protectors are not satisfactory for steady use because they don't fit well and they become fogged. (Oregon requires goggles or glasses with sideshields to be worn when working with hazardous chemicals).

Food is stored in same refrigerator as chemicals.
Remedy. Have fridge or storage for food only.

Mouth pipetting of chemical and biological materials is commonplace. This unsafe procedure is taught in some courses.
Remedy. Students and staff should be taught safe pipetting procedure and required to use it.

Effectiveness of hoods, particularly older ones, is uncertain and unknown. Lab ventilation in old buildings is poor.
Remedy. Hoods should be tested for adequate air flow (usually 100 ft/min) at various door positions. Don't do any work that may release hazardous materials to the air if hoods or ventilation are inadequate.

Chemicals are stored in unlabeled or inadequately labeled containers.
Remedy. All containers should have contents clearly marked. If containers are reused, old labels should be obliterated.

Individuals work alone in laboratory.
Remedy. No easy solution. Hazards vary greatly with nature of research and should be assessed for each situation. Hazardous operations should not be performed when aid is not available.

Labs have only one exit. This prevails in ancient buildings (Ag and Apperson), in modern buildings, (Oc-I) and apparently in buildings now being planned (Oc-III).
No easy remedy. Alternative interior or exterior exits are needed. And don't construct buildings with on-exit labs, whether or not permitted by building codes.

Lack of elevators in old buildings (Ag., Apperson) necessitates hand carrying equipment, supplies and samples upstairs to upper floors. The objects may be large, or heavy, or chemicals in large glass containers. When the arms are full, hand rails can't be used.
No easy remedy. Dumbwaiters or elevators needed.

Besides the specific unsafe conditions already listed, the status of lab safety at O.S.U. is manifested in more general ways.

Example: The Safety Procedures Handbook, the only required safety reading material for O.S.U. employees, is completely inadequate as a guide or even a starting point for lab safety.

Example: New staff and students often receive little or no safety orientation and instruction.

Example: Except for certain radiation hazards, there is no medical monitoring program (e.g. blood testing, urinalysis) for workers who may be exposed to hazardous materials or environments.

Comments: Some improvement is observable (lab showers and eyewash fountains are being installed) and safety is better in some departments that others, but generally, it is poor. Poor lab safety is a result of ignorance and apathy that prevail at all levels - students and lab workers, researchers, supervisors, and administration. In this environment, how can someone deal with an unsafe situation? Fortunately, an individual concerned about poor lab safety has an outside resource, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The activity and impact of OSHA is becoming a major factor in improving lab safety in academia as well as industry. For example, Stanford, M.I.T., Cal. Tech., and Princeton have been fined for OSHA violations, and required to correct deficiencies (the fines were small, but the corrections cost up to $400,000). The inspections and citations usually followed accidents or complaints by employees. (For more about OSHA and lab safety see a special 13 page report "Chemical Lab Safety and the Impact of OSHA," H. J. Sanders, Chem. Eng. News, 24 May 1976)

In Oregon, OSHA is administered by the Accident Prevention Division of the Workmans Compensation Board. It investigates complaints and inspects working conditions relating to health and safety. A complaint concerning a recent accident in the Chemistry Department resulted in citations for lack of showers and lack of side shields on safety glasses in areas where corrosive materials were stored and used. The citation for lack of side shields is ironic because Chemistry already required eye protection in labs; in other departments hazardous chemicals are used with no eye protection at all. Citations describe the safety or health hazard, specify corrective action to be taken by a certain date, and may involve fines. (Chemistry Department was fined $15.00 for each of the two violations.)

If safety or health hazards are not corrected when brought to the attention of supervisors or departments, complaints can be made by writing or phoning Robert Kennedy or Sandi Marsters, Accident Prevention Division, Workmans Compensation Board, 2447 Oakmont Way, Eugene, 97401, phone 686-7562. The complaint should be as specific and informative as possible, but can be anonymous. Safety complaints are usually investigated within a few days, but investigations of health or industrial hygiene problems may have a lag time of several weeks.