The lab safety problem – a personal story
The following is a guest post written by Nathan Watson, founder of BioRAFT, a Digital Science-supported company.
My left index finger should probably glow green under 488nm light for the rest of my life. As a junior researcher, I was producing recombinant viruses to overexpress genes including Green Florescent Protein (GFP) and a number of oncogenes. While isolating the virus carrying GFP, I was supporting the test tube with my left hand and slowly pressing a syringe needle through the tube’s soft plastic wall. I pressed too hard and the needle went completely through the tube and into my left index finger. I washed the finger with iodine and soap, put on a new pair of gloves, and finished the virus isolation.
I told no one.
I checked the cells and my finger daily over the next two weeks, and to my relief, the cells glowed and my finger did not. I corrected my methods when working with the oncogenes and consider myself lucky I had my incident with just the GFP.
This is the reality of research. If you had asked me if safety was important to me, I would have said, “sure it is.” If you had asked me if my lab was safe and if my PI cared about safety, I would have said yes. Yet, did I get training on the specific experiments I was doing or the hazards I was working with? Not really. Safety training, beyond the general lab safety lecture during new employee orientation, often entailed a post doc giving you a detailed protocol and encouraging you to ask questions. Yet, as an enthusiastic researcher who believed he already knew his way around a lab, I (and others like me) was more concerned with the scientific objectives, not the rigid tedium of safe experimentation.
That was how it was, and that is how it is today, but that isn’t how it has to be tomorrow. In the wake of survey results on lab safety culture published by BioRAFT (the company I founded to address this problem), Nature Publishing Group, and the UC Center for Laboratory Safety, we see that similar stories are playing out in research facilities across the world. Some researchers will be lucky as I was, but others may be working with oncogenes in their first accident, or not wearing a lab coat when a highly hazardous chemical spill occurs. The results of the survey point strongly to the need for research institutions and companies to take up the cause of safe working conditions in labs and to go beyond checklists and protocols to develop a new paradigm for safe experimentation.
The reality at your institution may surprise you. Go on, take a look for yourself …
For more information on the survey, visit BioRAFT’s website.