UC Berkeley News


 An early-morning lab fire at UC Santa Cruz in 2002 destroyed invaluable genomic-research data. Fears of such a catastrophe here lend urgency to Berkeley's lab-safety-training efforts.(UC Santa Cruz photo)

Please don't nuke the chancellor
Lab-safety training helps researchers avoid dangerous, costly accidents

| 29 September 2005

As a visiting physicist in Denmark in the 1970s, Robert Birgeneau had a close call with death. He was doing an experiment on neutron scattering when, without warning, a poorly shielded spectrometer emitted a huge pulse of radiation, which would have killed him had the reactor not shut down on its own.

Birgeneau survived to become chancellor at Berkeley, in which capacity he recently shared this cautionary tale with the campus's Research Compliance Advisory Committee. The long-ago experience, he says, left him not only literally shaking but convinced of the importance of taking lab-safety issues seriously.

Efforts to create a research-safety culture on campus now include required annual safety training for all new grad students and staff employees whose research involves potential health or safety hazards. So far this semester, more than 400 researchers have attended the information-packed two-hour session provided by the Office of Environment, Health, and Safety (EH&S), covering lab-safety basics; safety-related procedures specific to the campus; and what to do in case of an earthquake, fire, or other emergency.

"We've been fortunate to have avoided the kind of devastating fires that in recent years have taken out labs, destroyed years of research, and cost multiple millions of dollars at several other UC campuses," says EH&S director Mark Freiberg. "But we still have many hazards," he notes, and thus ample motivation to require a rigorous safety-training program. The training is designed, he says, to encourage researchers "to view daily lab practices through a critical eye, and provide constructive feedback to colleagues whenever they see questionable practices."

Delivered in-person by professional instructors, the safety training is enlivened by video re-enactments (on emergency eyewash stations, chemical-fume hoods, hazardous-materials disposal, and more) and photographs illustrating lab-safety do's and don'ts. Participants learn, or are reminded, that not all protective gloves are created equal (latex, nitrile, butyl rubber, neoprene, and PVC are each well-suited to specific types of materials, but not to others); why it's cool to alphabetize your books but not your chemical inventory (if sodium cyanide and sulfuric acid were to fall off a shelf and mix, for instance, they'd create a toxic cyanide gas); and why it's essential to wear appropriate personal protective equipment, a "defense of last resort" when other measures fail.

"There are so many reasons why people don't wear protective equipment," said EH&S specialist Tim Pine at a session last week, donning wrap-around safety glasses on top of his regular lenses. "They're not the coolest thing," he acknowledged. "But vanity could get you killed," he added quickly, and so could failing to use goggles, face shields, long sleeves, long pants, or closed-toed shoes because they feel uncomfortable, you're in a rush, or any other excuse.

Attendees responded audibly to a photo of a leg with a painful bromine burn, which a grad student sustained in her lab while wearing shorts. The course is sparing, however, with this kind of imagery. "If you try and shock people with images that are gruesome, you'll lose part of your audience," says Tim Bean, EH&S training coordinator.

The department has delivered 13 trainings so far this fall, including customized programs for College of Chemistry researchers. EH&S also provides separate, mandatory trainings for persons working with radiation, lasers, and biological pathogens, and has been known to give special safety sessions at the request of faculty across campus. (Last year, for instance, it gave a training to architecture students who work with potential hazards in their shop and studio spaces.)

Safety issues that researchers encounter in the field are also mentioned in the EH&S training and detailed in "Safety Guidelines for Field Researchers," a collateral booklet (also available online) covering dangers from dehydration to mountain lions and Lyme disease.

Acting Associate Professor David Ackerly, attending last week's session, said he'd so far managed to avoid rattlesnakes while "tramping through chaparral" to research native-plant ecology. But the newly hired integrative-biology teacher called the safety training "very valuable. I'm a little more attuned now to things to look for while setting up my molecular-science lab," he reported. "This is my chance to set up things right."

Ackerly said he planned to go back and check whether his supply shelves have safety restraints and where the nearest emergency eyewash station is located. "I appreciate that the training is not geared to freshmen," he added. "You're treated as if you're an experienced researcher and can think about real hazards."

Information on safety trainings, procedures, and publications, as well as downloadable forms, are available on the EH&S website, ehs.berkeley.edu.

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