Lab Accidents: Some Uses for Bystanders

February 14th, 2011

Chemical Ed with GogglesOne aspect of lab accidents that gets overlooked is how to make use of bystanders.  When everything hits the fan, many of the people who should know what to do will be stunned and need to be told, explicitly, how to help.  You’ll also find that all sorts of random people will come running to see what’s going on.  These bystanders can get in the way, and depending on the circumstances, can make the victim feel embarrassed.  If you’ve got stunned labmates or random looky-loos around, use them:

It is important to get the call out to emergency personnel as quickly as possible.  If a second bystander is around, direct him to place the call so you can help the victim.  Remember, in many cases, it might be better to call your campus emergency number than 911 (or 999, for folks in the UK).  Try to call with a land-line so that the first responders have a better chance of knowing where to go.  Make sure to remind the person responsible for calling 911 of these things.

If applicable, send someone to pull a fire alarm.  Make sure it is in your building and as close to the accident scene as possible.  Most of the time, the alarms send signals to a control station on campus so emergency personnel know where to go.

Send scouts to the street to meet the ambulance and direct them to the lab.  Many lab buildings are labyrinthine.  You might need to send people out in different locations if the emergency services can’t be guaranteed to arrive at one location.  Also, if you’re located centrally on a campus, send a scout out to the main thoroughfare to direct the ambulance to the appropriate access roads (where they can then find another scout to escort them up to the lab).  The scouts at the door should know what elevator or staircase will give the paramedics the most direct route to the scene of the accident.

Send someone to find a safety representative of the department or university.

If there is no obvious danger at your location, send someone to bring extra supplies.  These might include: first aid supplies, a blanket, a spare change of clothes, or an extra fire extinguisher.  It depends on the circumstances.

In the immediate aftermath of the waste/diazomethane explosion of my undergrad days, our lab could have done a much better job.  Based on what I’ve been told: (i) the person who went to pull the fire alarm pulled it in an adjoining building, (ii) the paramedics momentarily were lost because the floor numbers didn’t match in the adjoining buildings and the people trying to guide them got turned around, and (iii) the labmates who went to find something to stop the flow of blood from my neck came back with wads of toilet paper and a dirty lab coat.  Kind of gross.

Of course, I appreciated all of their help, as I was pretty useless at the time and thought I was going to die; however, in hindsight, we could have been a little better prepared.  We just never thought of these things.


6 Responses to “Lab Accidents: Some Uses for Bystanders”

  1. Sharon Says:

    Good post, Paul. You must really love chemistry, if you returned to it after getting shrapnel in your neck as an impressionable undergrad! (Glad that wasn’t worse…)

    My undergrad school did something that was kind of fun and worthwhile to help TAs learn how to deal with emergencies. There was one day each year where all the veteran TAs and some professors staged a series of scenarios that the new TAs were walked through in groups of 3 or 4. The veteran TAs acted out scenes of, for example, major or minor spills (one of some type of caustic agent, one that had the smell of ammonia, etc.), someone getting something in their eye, even someone with their fake plastic hand caught on fire. The young TAs had to respond to the emergency according to the right protocol, and recruit the help of the uninjured TA actors. (Make sure someone calls 911, someone attends to the victim, question surrounding people to find out what happened, send someone down to meet the ambulance, etc.).

    It was entertaining, but it hopefully also helped the young (and veteran) TAs remember what to do besides freak out if/when actual emergencies came up in the future.

  2. Chemjobber Says:

    Sharon, that’s a really smart exercise. I don’t understand why drills like this (or training sessions) don’t happen more often in academia or industry.

  3. Paul Says:

    @Sharon: We had a postdoc who was also injured and essentially left the lab right after the accident (a shame, as he was a nice guy) and an undergrad from the lab down the hall got really freaked out about the perils of research too.

    I think doing walk-throughs of lab accidents is a great idea. It’s probably something Caltech should consider for its next Safety Day (assuming there is a second “annual” Safety Day). It’d be the chemical equivalent of a NASA simulator exercise.

  4. Sharon Says:

    It would be great to incorporate into Safety Day. (More schools should do Safety Day…) Overall I think the exercise was successful, because it didn’t feel tedious or like lecturing. People made it fun, but at the same time it was taken pretty seriously and some of the scenarios gave you chills. You got the correct response protocol drilled into your head.

    It did help me actually – one time when I was TAing an evening lab a girl started going into shock from some kind of asthmatic response to… something, I think it turned out to be a sulfur allergy(?) . Ultimately I did very little but make sure 911 got called and met, but it was sort of reassuring to know that I had been trained in what to do.

  5. RB Woodweird Says:

    Your list of disaster to-dos is instructive. You should simplify it into a checklist and tape it to the lab door. In an emergency, even someone who has been trained in a drill is likely to forget things.

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

    […] ChemBark discussed bystander roles in lab accidents […]


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