Hall of Shame: A (Good?) Method for Promoting Lab Safety

September 28th, 2010

Chemical Ed with GogglesIt’s damn near impossible to find a workplace where there isn’t at least one person who does something that bothers you, but when it comes to chemistry, behavior that is bothersome often equates to behavior that is dangerous.

Some time in the middle of my career in grad school, Harvard posted signs in hallways that read “Don’t touch surfaces outside the laboratory with gloved hands.”  Such a policy makes a lot of sense to me.  There are all sorts of people walking through the department without gloves—students, staff, janitors, vendors, maintenance workers—and these people should not be exposed to hazardous materials deposited on common surfaces like doorknobs and elevator buttons.

The biology labs on campus established an effective culture with regard to this practice.  They had a “one glove rule” where you’d see people carrying samples in one (gloved) hand, and using the other (ungloved) hand to open doors to avoid contamination.  While I can’t speak for the other chemistry labs in the department, many people in the lab in which I worked were not as diligent in following the rules.  You would regularly see people walking around the hallways opening doors with gloved hands.  In many cases, their gloves were obviously/ridiculously soiled.  (Plus, for all intents and purposes in these scenarios, there is no such thing as “clean gloves”.  When you see someone with gloves, the assumption is that they are contaminated.  Period.)

One year, the safety officer of the department made it a point to hold a meeting with every group.  After finishing his agenda, he opened the floor to questions and comments.   After a couple of seconds of silence, I raised my hand like the unabashed jerk that I am and brought up the glove issue.  I can’t remember the exact dialogue, but it went something along the lines of this:

Me:  “I notice that there are several signs posted in the hallway that instruct us not to touch surfaces with gloved hands.  I assume that this is an official department policy.”

Him:  “Yes.”

Me:  “Well, I’ve also noticed that a lot of people in our lab don’t follow this policy.  Is the policy to be taken seriously?”

Him:  “Yes.  You should remind the people you see using gloves on doors about the policy.”

Me:  “Well, I have.  I’ve both talked to them and sent several e-mails on the subject to our group list, but nothing changes.  What should I do?”

At this point, the safety officer turned to the group and asked what should be done.  Predictably, this was met with silence.  It felt like high-school health class.

To finish off the point, I said that there’s pretty much nothing that can be done, because since no one is ever punished for breaking the rules, there is no incentive to respect them.  Furthermore, there is actually an incentive to disobey the rule, because if you touch doors without gloves, you will contaminate your bare hands with whatever someone else deposited with soiled gloves.

The statement hung in the air like a humid fart, which was allowed to dissipate over the course of several more seconds of uncomfortable silence.  There was no effective resolution and nothing changed.  Maybe nobody besides me cared.  I’d be fine with that, so long as the signs were replaced with new ones that said “Assume all surfaces in this building are contaminated.”   As it stood, the situation was mind-numbingly frustrating and I had exhausted all of the options available to me to solve the problem.  All except for one… 

While I did not have the authority to punish anyone in an official capacity, I did have an urge to address the issue by establishing a “Hall of Shame” in a common area of the lab or department.  The “Hall” would consist of photographic evidence of people willfully violating safety policy (e.g., by posting pictures of people touching doors with contaminated gloves, working without eye protection, etc.)  The images would be allowed to speak for themselves.

The plan was to start with a simple, physical set up like a poster board by the bathroom.  My assumption was that the pictures would eventually be stolen, repeatedly, and at some point, the Hall would have to move to a Web site.  No one wants the #8 hit on a Google search of his name to be a run-down of his unsafe lab practices…especially if he’s hunting for jobs.  In our business, reputations are a big deal, and no one wants a tarnished one.  In this respect, I think the hall would have achieved its purpose, but at the expense of my enduring some serious retaliation.

So, I never carried out the plan, but I’m curious what y’all think about the idea.  Would it work?  Would I have been a jerk, overstepping his bounds as a grad student?

WWRBWD?


21 Responses to “Hall of Shame: A (Good?) Method for Promoting Lab Safety”

  1. excimer Says:

    I sort of had a similar idea that I wrote about a while ago, but my approach was a bit more subtle. I think it would go a long way if all labs and offices were separate, but in our chemistry building, they aren’t. We work and study in the same room. This is, for lack of a better word, retarculous. If departments wanted to get serious about safety, they’d spend the money to fix this. In the end, it’s an issue for PIs and admins. If they don’t care, and people die in lab, they pay the price. But Americans care little for prevention and preventative maintenance.

    RBW smoked in lab and threw his cigarettes in the sink, even if they had ether in them. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t care.

  2. David P Says:

    I have never worked anywhere where the offices of lab personnel and their labs were separate, but it does not mean that an effective safety policy cannot be enforced. And there needs to be a stick as our canine OP says, because there is otherwise no incentive to follow the policy.

    The Hall of Shame is quite the idea (and could be highly effective if google searches did find it!) but really safety has to come from top down. If the senior people in the department don’t care, then no one else will.

  3. sam Says:

    during my grad work, half the lab was on the other side of the hall, and i often carried microscopy samples across. i would wear gloves to keep my samples clean, not protect me from chemicals (which at worst were volatile solvents). if i thought i could make it across the hall without anyone seeing me, i would. otherwise, i’d take off one glove (which is a pain in the ass to do just to keep up appearances). i understand that no one wants to see anyone else open a door with a gloved hand. i should have worn a sign that said, “these gloves are cleaner than my hands.”

  4. J-bone Says:

    We called the glove rule the Michael Jackson rule, and my grad school was reverse the situation of yours; the chemists were all very good about taking one glove off and the biologists were notorious offenders.
    Our compliance was strictly peer based, I was sternly reprimanded by senior grad students the first time I walked out of lab with both my gloves on.

    I like the idea of a Wall of Shame. There were a few people in our dept that got yelled at an awful lot for doing stupid stuff and nobody could convince them they were doing anything wrong. A little embarrassment might have actually done the trick.

  5. Chemjobber Says:

    I don’t like the idea of a Wall of Shame, but if it’s a bad idea, it’s a really useful bad idea.

    Re one glove: A simple solution to the issue — lots of the L-shaped door openers. (as opposed to knobs) Good enough for an elbow or a foot to open…

  6. anonymous Says:

    I did an experiment some time ago where I stopped wearing any personal protective equipment in the lab … and no one said anything, not even the safety officer of the lab. What kind of message does this give to anyone who needs to pay attention to lab safety?

  7. David P Says:

    @Chemjobber: I’m not sure I want to open a door that someone just opened with their feet. :)

  8. Chemjobber Says:

    Shoes, then.

  9. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    A pedal at ground level for opening the laboratory door in addition to the customary handle is actually a good idea. Is there a reason why this would be undesirable?

  10. Daddy Fedbucks Says:

    Ye$.

  11. Airforce Says:

    excimer said- “if they don’t care, and people die in lab, they pay the price.”

    Actually they don’t. Injured Grad students and chemical workers are covered under worker’s compensation. This severely limits compensation to the victim and prevents the injured party from suing for anything but treatment related compensation (sorry, no punitive damages). The damages will be considered ‘work related’.

    You-all are coal miners.

    And how are you going to prove that the cancer you got was from mr sticky fingers from the lab down the hall?

    You-all are coal miners.

    BIG CORP/ACADEMIA USA will simply shrug and pay the needed medical bills. There will be no payoff or trial. Their existing insurance will cover the injury. You will receive the bare minimum and the friendly insurance company the state hooks you up with will do everything it can to discredit you and disprove your injury. Unless your legs are blown off, there is little hope of finding an attorney to represent you. Remember work related injuries are NOT treated by the legal system the same way a car accident is. No payoff for the attorney.

    You all are coal miners.

    The administrators thus have NO incentive to maintain safety standards except maybe bad press (OSHA is a mythological entity).

    Even if there were molten vats of chromium VI in your lab and several people drowned, your friendly chemical institution would get off scott free with only minor fines.

    You all are coal miners.

    Take a look at the mine in West Virgina where 25 coal minors died. The mine chugs on.

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2010-04-05-West-Virginia_N.htm

  12. Chemjobber Says:

    I quiver in fear at the Wall of Shame here: http://chemjobber.blogspot.com/2010/09/is-messy-lab-unsafe.html

  13. Fleatamer Says:

    I recently was standing at a urinal in the gents, minding my own business fo course, when a postdoc came into the toilet, whipped out his wanger and started to relieve himself whilst still wearing his blue nitrile gloves.

    I was tempted to ask whether he had put the gloves on to stop anything getting on to his hands!

  14. metallabenzene Says:

    Sounds like what Stambuli does, though a lot of it is just silly stuff now…

    http://web.chemistry.ohio-state.edu/~stambuli/index.php?page=hos

  15. jillian Says:

    Paul, this is gospel. I could have written it myself, with similar interactions with safety…

  16. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do « A Giant Among Molecules Says:

    […] 29, 2010 I swear that the internet can read my mind. After reading Paul at ChemBark talk about dangerous and inconsiderate lab mates and how to deal with them, I couldn’t help but think that while dangerous lab mates blow themselves up only every once […]

  17. Jyllian Kemsley Says:

    @sam: But once you touch the doorknob with your gloved hand, isn’t the glove now just as dirty as your hand would be? If protecting your sample is that important, I’d think you’d need a fresh glove, anyway.

    @Airforce: No, in fact, not all graduate students are covered by workers compensation. See http://blog.everydayscientist.com/?p=2043 and http://pubs.acs.org/isubscribe/journals/cen/82/i35/html/8235sci3.html

  18. Friday round-up | The Safety Zone Says:

    […] Hall of Shame: A (good?) method for promoting lab safety and, in response Is a messy lab unsafe? […]

  19. wolfie Says:

    When I was a graduate student at the University of Freiburg (herman staudinger was not far away), we had a bottle of 1 kg of ordinary sodium cyanide from Merck Chemicals standing on the shelf in the first lab right next to the entrance door. Maybe it was thought for the remaining Nazis in our country, but noone ever used it.

  20. anonymous Says:

    @airforce

    You, sir, are partly correct. It is true that one cannot sue one’s employer. You need to do a little more reading on the topic of workers compensation.

    OSHA and MSHA are two different regulatory agencies. What happens in a chemistry lab is not equivalent to a coal mine disaster and vice versa.
    Workers compensation (WC) statutes differ by state, and compensation will differ for types of injuries incurred. Northern states that have/have
    had a strong union presence are more likely to have WC laws more favorable to the injured employee than ‘right to work’ Southern and Western states.

    In the state where my WC case was adjudicated -it is not a trial, it is heard by an administrative law judge – attorneys can receive no more than 33.3% of the lump sum award plus costs (copies, depositions, etc). I was awarded 60% of the affected body part, plus lifetime medical care for anything related to the injuries sustained. An attorney who is knowledgeable about chemical accidents would likely employ expert testimony with respect to likelihood of future medical needs in terms of organ damage, cancer, etc.

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