We all joke about those silly safety packets and lectures we are forced to sit through before we take a science course, before we enter a science laboratory, before every experiment in lab… it never ends. We laugh, we mock, we don’t pay attention. But, guys, let’s get real. We’re in college now. We’re not working with 1 M HCl anymore. It’s 5 M and 10 M. The kind where your lab TA hovers over your shoulder, eyes wide open, fists clenched, praying you won’t spill a drop on your glove. The kind that can burn through wood in an hour. We’re working with fun chemicals like DCM that seep through your gloves and evaporate off your skin, only to be trapped by the nitrile glove, heating the surface between your skin and the glove, leaving irritated chemically burned skin behind, all while you stand there itching, not realizing what’s happening.
When things start to get dangerous, you know they’re legit.
I’m glad I paid attention during the never-ending two-and-a-half hour laboratory safety lecture in what felt like a -10 degree room that I was required to attend before working in my research lab. At first, a lot of what I learned was common sense. Wear gloves. Wear a lab coat. Closed toed shoes. Don’t touch handles with unclean gloves. Dispose of biohazards appropriately, etc. etc. I forgot about the lecture as soon as I left the building and started to melt in the warm summer sun.
One day last week I was handed a 1.25 inch long sterile needle and told to stab it through a 0.5 inch thick rubber cap in order to draw out a bacterial culture contained in the oxygen free environment of the flask. The first few flasks went over decently well. It took elbow grease to work the needle through the plastic carefully, and extreme caution when pulling the trapped needle back out. Nonetheless, I was doing fine.
Then one of the needles’ cap was stuck on pretty tightly. I twisted and pulled and suddenly…PAIN. Pain? I looked at my hand. A drop of blood wass visible through my glove. I looked up for a second, startled, “did that really just happen?” I looked down again, the entire finger of my glove was a river of deep crimson. Wide eyed, I stared for a few seconds longer before ripping the glove off and clutching my finger in pain.
EtOH was my first thought. Ethanol. Sterilize. Of course, the needle was unused and sterile, but it couldn’t hurt. I doused my hand in ethanol. Next was pressure, to help a clot form. Finally a tightly wrapped bandaid to maintain the pressure. Turns out, the needle is the same as that used to draw blood, it cut deep and the blood flow was relentless. It is an understatement to say that I proceeded cautiously from there on out. I was, and still am, terrified of those needles, mostly of the pain they can cause. But caution is not a blanket of protection.
The very next day, I stabbed the same finger, in a different spot, with a used needle when withdrawing it from the rubber capping of the flask. That time the ethanol was essential. I still have the scars on my fingers from the needle stabs, a constant reminder of the importance of lab safety. Yes, it is common sense, but when it comes time to have to call upon that common sense knowledge, there will be chaos or panic, and your common sense is lost to instinct.
We’re in college now guys. It’s the real deal. Get ready for awesomely exciting and dangerous lab work. Pay attention during that lab safety lecture, no matter how silly it feels. Even if they give you doughnuts and play YouTube videos to keep everyone awake, it’s a serious matter.