Working Alone in Lab

June 30th, 2011

Chemical Ed with GogglesShould the practice of working alone in lab be treated as anathema?  You’d think so after reading through the comment threads regarding this weekend’s accident at Boston College.

She was working alone, you say?!  Crikey!  How could this possibly be allowed to happen?!  I am outraged!!

People in academic chemistry labs work alone all the time.  While this observation by itself does not mean the practice is a good idea, it does make me wonder why so many of you seem so surprised.

Well, Paul…putting aside the fact that the practice is common, do you think working alone in lab is a bad idea?

The question seems strange when worded like that, so I’ll take the scenic route in answering it.  I think the practice of working alone in lab is similar to driving your car in the rain.  While I’d prefer not to have to drive in the rain, if I choose to stay home, nothing is going to get done.  And while bad weather can exacerbate an accident, I would not label driving in the rain as inherently “unsafe”.  If it is raining outside when you need to go somewhere, chances are you are going to drive in the rain and get on with your life.  If no one is around your lab when you want to work, chances are you are going to keep working.   

There might be another valid analogy with personal protective equipment.  Insisting that people work in groups might be considered akin to insisting that everyone work in bunny suits.  Are you safer working in a bunny suit?  Perhaps, but it can definitely be a hassle for the (little?) value it adds to your general safety.

The major risk of working alone is simple: should an accident occur in which one person becomes incapacitated or in need of assistance, no one else will be present to help.  This is a valid criticism and I think it is never a bad idea to have people around.  While I understand the reasoning behind not wanting researchers to experiment alone in lab, I do not endorse the wholesale idea that the practice should be banned.

I’ve got no major problem with working alone, so long as the person doing so uses good judgment in deciding what type of work is reasonable in these situations.  When alone, it is prudent to limit yourself to experiments that don’t require especially hazardous reagents, dangerous conditions, or large scales.  That said, I don’t think there are any black-and-white rules you can institute.  Experience should also enter the analysis; you don’t want to try something dodgy for the first time when you are alone.

There are a bunch of other questions that can arise with respect to any outright ban of working alone.  First off, what counts as “alone”?  The institutional policies I’ve come across aren’t specific.  Must the researchers working be located in the same bay?  The same room?  Same floor?  Same building?

And what if your companion goes to his office to check e-mail?  Or down the hall to use the restroom?  Should work then stop?  For what duration can a person be left alone before she has to stop working?  Need the companion be a chemist, or will anyone suffice?

Also, what is considered “working”?  If I am pulling data from a computer in the lab, need someone else be present?  What if I am collecting an NMR spectrum?  Should someone else be in the room with me?

I don’t have good answers to these questions, but again, I really don’t care too much because it doesn’t change my bottom line.  What do I care if someone is running a routine dump-and-stir reaction on a Sunday morning?  The lion-share of the risk is being assumed by the researcher who has made a conscious decision to work alone, and I think that risk is minimal and reasonable in most situations.  Again, the use of particularly nasty reagents or conditions is a different story, because there is added potential for injury and damage beyond the person who is working alone. 

All of this said, the situation can boil down to a black-and-white issue in that I believe researchers should be obligated to abide by the rules of their institutions.  If your advisor, school, or company bans working alone, you shouldn’t.  It’s that simple.  If you don’t know what “counts” as working alone, you ask before trying anything.

Given the comments over the past week, I expect a lot of you to disagree.  Fire away…


33 Responses to “Working Alone in Lab”

  1. Vladimir Chupakhin Says:

    Working alone for experimental scientist should be prohibited – 100%

  2. Matt Says:

    There should be NO working alone in lab any time there is a reaction going on. If someone has an overnight reaction going – you shouldn’t be in the room by yourself even if you’re pulling NMR data or taking a UVVis. This needs to be instituted by more PIs who are usually too blinded by the prospect of “results” to make anything like this mandatory.

  3. Unstable Isotope Says:

    I wouldn’t phrase it as working alone, more like work hours and after-hours work. That makes much more sense. During normal work hours, you’re assured that there are people around. Putting some restrictions on after-hours work makes sense. For example, where I work, you have to sign in with security and they will check on you in their rounds.

  4. RM Says:

    For everyone who says that working alone should *never* be allowed, would you be willing to drop what you’re doing and come into lab, say, on a Saturday morning or at 10 pm on a Weeknight, just to be the “other person” in the lab while someone else does their work?

  5. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I would rather not work alone in the lab but as you indicated, it’s not realistic. Most of us have pretty haphazard schedules and we tend to work whenever we want; this inevitably means that we will be often alone in the lab. Many of us get our best work done when we are not surrounded by the normal hustle and bustle of the lab.

    I think ultimately it’s a cost/benefit analysis. The amount of productive work done by people working alone in labs is much greater than the number of accidents this practice led to. I am certainly not condoning the practice and completely agree that whenever possible it should be avoided. I also agree about the commonsense measures that you noted, such as not being alone when you are trying a new procedure for the first time. It’s just that strictly from a factual standpoint, you are probably going to lose much more than you gain by trying to stick to the “don’t work alone” rule.

    Plus you cannot blame the system beyond a certain point; graduate students should be instructed at the beginning of their careers about their responsibilities and safety measures. After that they should be treated as grown-up adults who are responsible for their decisions and the consequences.

  6. CDM Says:

    People need to use their brains and evaluate hazards. Those wanting the buddy system for taking NMRs sadly aren’t using their brain. I’d argue that the buddy system artificially creates an environment where hazards are seen everywhere, non-hazards are seen as hazardous and extreme hazards are perhaps treated as less hazardous than they are. It creates an environment where hazards are not actively considered. That’s not a good idea.

    The same goes for PPE in lab. Is using 250 mL of tBuLi the same level of hazard as running a small column with hexane and ethyl acetate? Are the PPE requirements the same? The safety paranoid will claim they are, but reasonable evaluation of risks and hazards says otherwise.

  7. Matt Says:

    @RM – I would be willing to do that. I think that if this were mandated, people would figure out quickly how to schedule work “with” others and be accomodating when need be. I think that the biggest obstacle would be the PIs

    @CW a few extra results NEVER equal a lab injury. Those results would be had eventually. Injuries in the lab are needless. I completely disagree that you can do a cost/benefit analysis on this. (Not saying that people haven’t. Just arguing that the results of the analysis are invalid).

  8. science is real Says:

    Theorist here, so no horse in the race so to speak. But I’m wondering how this works in a very small lab. A friend in my department is the only graduate student in a new PI’s lab – there are also two lab techs, but they’re paid hourly and work a 9-6 schedule. The PI is in lab a fair amount but also in his office down the hall a lot of the time, so while he is in on weekends and evenings, it’s often not in the same room. What would you do in this situation? Friend can’t work 9-6 M-F (without doing an 8-year PhD or something), so is the best option to pause all experiments when the PI goes to work on grants?

    I’m really not sure what I would do in that situation. Friend is basically biding time until more grad students join by doing lower-risk “grunt work” in sparsely populated hours, but also finds the situation frustrating. Our department does not have a formal ban on working alone, but it is discouraged.

  9. Liberal Arts Chemist Says:

    We had as dangerous a synthetic lab as anyone and we had a simple rule … No new chemistry when working alone (with the usual HF / F2 rider). It was assumed that houskeeping, glassblowing, solvent purification and vac line mantenance would all happen in the off hours but that new chemistry and HF / F2 work would require a second pair of eyes. That said, people still had incidents, the nastiest Lab Alone injury that I ever saw was a cut from catching a beaker a nanosecond after the beaker fractured when hitting the floor. He drove the shards of glass into the palm of his hand doing significant tendon damage and turning the lab into a scene from Laboratory Chainsaw Massacre. Considering what we worked with it always seemed that the mundane things would trip us up (did you know that if you are focussed on glassblowing hard enough that you can pick up an extremely hot piece of glass and the only recognition that something is wrong is when you recognize the smell of burning graduate student?).

  10. Phil Says:

    Safety should always, always be the top priority when working in a lab. No exceptions. I think an important angle is to consider why one would be lone working in the first place? I think (organic) chemistry has a deeply unhealthy working culture in terms of working hours – how often do you come across the attitude of “I’ll just stay later/come in at the weekend” as the solution to any and all problems?

    To do so at the cost of one’s work/life balance is one thing, but to do so at the potential cost of your safety is just ridiculous. As Matt says, there is no result that’s worth the cost of a potentially nasty lab injury.

    No, I don’t think that a strict “buddy system” should be instigated to combat this. I think the person thinking that they absolutely have to come in at a time when the lab would otherwise be empty needs to re-evaluate their working practices and consider whether they really need to be in the lab a time when there isn’t anyone relatively nearby who can occasionally check in on them.

    This does not appear to be a particularly popular opinion among organic chemists :)

  11. Ed Says:

    Considering that I was the last and only (for the last 2-3 years) graduate student of a PI, I worked “alone” constantly. I did maintain personal relationships with people outside of my lab though, so if I were to not show up to lunch or home, there would be reason to worry. Thankfully, never was an issue.

  12. Steve Says:

    When I was doing my PhD research the general rule was don’t do anything you haven’t done before (including significant reaction scale-up) – and the usual riders about doing extremely hazardous work (HF, cyanide etc.)

    I don’t see the problem with doing routine work – column chromatography, NMR analysis etc. alone – in a lab with only a few members you simply can’t mandate a buddy system for this and expect the same level of output. Maybe the better solution is to have new lab members pass some kind of risk assessment test before they get a key to the lab?

  13. CR Says:

    All good points. Unfortunately, what is an easy reaction to one is not to another. In addition, what is common sense to one is not common sense to another. And thus sometimes common sense needs to be legislated.

    At my previous employer (large Pharma company) the rule was during “off-hours” (this was a large Pharma company so off-hours meant >6 pm, <6 am, weekends) no work in the hood. Computer work only.

    I also had another previous employer where if you wanted to work after hours, then you had to check in with security and get a "man down" radio and clip it to your belt. The radio would activate if it went to the prone position for more than a few seconds. Which worked great, except it would usually go off when a researcher went into the "library" for journal reading (and by library, I mean the bathroom).

  14. psi*psi Says:

    I’m seeing a clear synthetic bias in the comments here. For what I do these days–instrumental work, crystal growth around ambient pressure, thin film processing, device fab & testing in a glovebox–working alone is no more dangerous than, say, SHOWERING alone. There’s a small chance the building could explode, or I could slip and fall–that’s IT. Commenter #1 is dead wrong. If I feel like AFMing at 3 AM, I’ll AFM at 3 AM, alone or not, and pretty much the worst thing that will happen in either case is that I could break a tip. (And broken AFM tips are highly unlikely to affect my health or safety, unless my advisor decides to beat me for breaking them, which isn’t her style at all.)

  15. Paul Says:

    @psi*psi:

    I strongly recommend that you cease the practice of showering alone. I am an expert on safety and will be happy to provide guidance on this subject. Coincidentally—much like your example with AFM—the worst thing that can happen is for a tip to be broken.

  16. James Says:

    Try telling someone at a high pressure academic lab who has safely handled spontaneously combustible/potentially explosive/lethally toxic compounds like organoboranes, organozincs, organolithium reagents, hydrogen cyanide, methyl triflate, hydrogen sulfide, etc. without serious incident that they can’t come in alone on a Sunday morning to TLC and work up their peptide coupling reaction because it’s “unsafe”. They’ll tell you to fuck right off.

  17. Tony Says:

    The Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK has provided some advice on this topic, available at: http://www.rsc.org/images/LoneWorking_tcm18-37773.pdf

  18. Anonymous Says:

    This is a busy department, so there are always plenty of people around during core hours. This means that during 9-6 you can run any reactions you see fit (provided you are sensible..), but if it is something new some one should be near-by (our deskroom is fishbowl style so you can be seen and heard from it at the hood).

    Out of core hours reactions are not encouraged, but standard workups and columns, NMR etc are fine, provided you take the same care you normally would.

    Also it is interesting that the only accidents this department has had (to my knowledge) have been during core hours, with other people in the lab.

    The idea that we need a “buddy” to be in the lab at the same time is incredibly restrictive, and would just mean that not as work would get done.

  19. RB Woodweird Says:

    The reason she probably left the lab? She didn’t want to get under the very public safety shower. This is an old problem, especially for female graduate students.

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

    […] Chembark considered the issue of working alone in lab […]

  21. Hap Says:

    I wouldn’t want to work alone in lab if I don’t have to, but I don’t know if there’s enough risk in it to freak me out (is it more risky than my drive to work, for example, or in grad school, my bike/walk to work?). People take risks, and if you feel like playing chemistry roulette, you’re old enough to bet your life. If what you do threatens the lives and safety of others, well, that’s a different story (Hi, Dr. TT Explosives Chemist!). I think the school and perhaps the advisor have something to lose, but I don’t know if anything other than a few public deaths will really convince them that the loss of lab time is worth it to them.

    The leaving the lab part bothers me more than the working alone part (I wouldn’t have figured it was easy to work alone in a hardcore synth lab – 2 am?), in part because it potentially could have hurt bystanders. I think RBW has it right, though – she probably didn’t want to use the safety showers, despite that being what they’re for. Curtains for safety showers seem like a good idea, as brought up before, and probably drains would help, too (the hesitancy of people to flood the lab for something they’re not certain is worth it).

  22. bromine Says:

    Getting hit on the finger with your AFM tip… 😛 Ouch?

  23. Anonymous Says:

    I worked for many years in a lab with almost no safety rules. PIs were always saying us (inexperienced students) every single thing we had to take care about. I never saw an accident there, even not a small accident.
    After that I worked in different labs with very strict safety rules (including not working alone). In those labs I have seen some accidents (none of them serious, but almost). My opinion is that in these labs, somehow, people rely on safety rules for their own safety. Perhaps the best safety plan is to think (and to know) about what you are doing in each moment.
    Just an opinion.
    All this said I agree with Paul: if your advisor or company doesn’t allow you to work alone, you should not do.

  24. wolfie Says:

    Well, I personally, rarely or almost always work alone in my lab. Last time on a lonely island until five in the morning to prepare a Nano Letters paper. But I had only centrifuges cooled down to 2°C in PBS buffer, so almost nothing could goo wrong, except for the nanoparticle prep.

  25. You're Pfizered Says:

    Common sense is very relative. While at a small biotech I watched a guy with a fairly good PhD weigh out 100g of LAH on an open bench-top. Collateral damage anyone?

  26. Chemjobber Says:

    I think I’ve done 30 grams (or was it 50?) of NaH on an open bench top as a grad student. I remember thinking to myself, “You know, this isn’t a very good idea…”

  27. To work or not to work alone in lab | The Safety Zone Says:

    […] week on ChemBark, Paul posted about the issue of working alone in lab: I’ve got no major problem with working alone, so long as the person doing so uses good judgment […]

  28. wolfie Says:

    nevertheless, famous, by having started the first blog against la belle Dr. Sezen

  29. eugene Says:

    I completely agree with Paul’s view on this. This is in light of the fact that I’ve done lots of formally dangerous reactions when alone with the lab. I won’t do anything that I think is ‘really’ dangerous or something new. But I’ve done stuff on my own that I probably would’t allow others to do (like butyl lithium reactions that I have done 300 times). I could see how someone would get mad at me for that and I’ll try to limit it. But if someone tells me I can’t come in alone and after work-up of that BuLi reaction, extract it and do a column with no one else in the lab because organic solvents are dangerous, I would not be very happy.

  30. pTsOH Says:

    I work alone quite often. It has more to do with availability of NMR and the earlier schedules of most of my colleagues. I do have a list of things that I will only use/do with other people in the room, during normal working hours, which so far has comprised:

    1. tBuLi (recently did a reflux reaction in 280 mL of tBuLi. you can bet I had someone standing right next to me while I was cannulating)
    2. Any cyanide salt
    3. NaH not in mineral oil (though the oil dispersion has never failed me)
    4. LiAlH4 not in the glove box
    5. Quench of NaK or other solvent drying compounds

    I think common sense is important. All of the above except #2 are cases where I have heard of things going wrong either from my older colleagues or in the literature. #2 is just plain obvious. One trick is to search “Organic Syntheses” for a particular reagent the first time you use it. OS is open access and fairly up-to-date on potential hazards.

  31. ChemBark » Blog Archive » The 2011 Chemmy Award Winners, Part 1 of 2 Says:

    […] (1 2) and led to a thoughtful discussion in the blogosphere about the safety of working alone (1 2). Unfortunately, I don’t believe a final post mortem (including the cause of the accident) […]

  32. BeenThereDoneThat Says:

    I am an academic whose retirement will come sooner than later due to safety considerations. It is very difficult to enforce a “no working alone rule” especially for eager undergraduates who want to get results quickly. I keep a pix of a CEN article describing the tragic UCLA accident nearby to remind me of the dangers of doing research.

  33. Chemjobber Says:

    BTDT: Would you like to tell more stories? E-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com.


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