Orignally Published on
Caffeinated Confidence
October 2018

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Let's Talk about Lab Safety

A few weeks ago my department held a mandatory lab safety day for all the grad students/postdocs. Overall, it was pretty uneventful. I was just happy that I had an excuse not to get any work done that day and be rewarded with free food afterwards. However, there was something that stuck out during this event that irked me, and after debating back and forth on if I wanted to discuss these thoughts… well, you’re reading this aren’t you?

So, at the start of the event, all students were funneled into a large seminar room where faculty were going to start the event with a rundown on how we’ve been doing “safety-wise” compared to previous years. I was just chillin’ in the back of the room, making the occasional snide comment to my friends and trying not to fall asleep when the speaker moved on to present results from a climate survey that was sent out to students earlier. One of these survey questions had asked if students had ever done lab work while tired. The survey said that over half of those that responded had.

Now depending on who you are, your response might be, “Um, duh?” because it is a well known fact that grad students and postdocs are pressured by their PIs to produce good results in short amounts of time. And, unfortunately, those pressures don’t subside even when your experiment had decided to throw a hissy fit. So we work harder. And longer. And later. But that’s not the narrative the speaker decided to present to explain these survey results. Rather, he blamed it on something else entirely.

The department is full of passionate people, he said (though I'm paraphrasing from memory), some of you are just so passionate about your work that you simply forget to stop working.

The room fell silent for a second. Then, there was muttering amongst the students. I just sat there dumbfounded and confused, questioning whether I had heard him correctly. Because not only did he directly imply that if you don’t work late you’re not passionate (which is a discussion for a whole other post) but he turned around and blamed poor lab safety on the students. Seriously? Seriously?!

I was annoyed.

I was annoyed because it’s rarely the student’s passion that puts them in unsafe working conditions. Many times, it’s the PI, either directly or indirectly. For example, I knew of faculty who would praise lab safety one minute and then turn around and scream at their grad students for not producing results quick enough, as well as faculty whose response to failed experiments was simply to just “try harder.” And it’s extremely difficult to say no to the long hours and put your safety first, even when your PI is a reasonable human being. Because these are the people that make or break your career. They determine when you graduate. How can you say no to that?

And yet(!), every "Academic Lab Safety" type article I’ve glanced at so far never seems to bring up this issue. And I think the fact that faculty weren’t even required to attend this safety day seminar speaks volumes to just how oblivious everyone is to this issue.

Good lab safety starts at the top. And just like faculty should consider research questions based on potential dangers, know the general details of each person’s project and have a structure in place to make sure new students are trained properly, faculty should also be aware that science doesn’t always work on an academic timeline.

Even the most competent student can make mistakes when they’re stressed and tired.