Sometimes while we are in the lab, unanticipated safety issues arise: you find an uncapped bottle of chemical waste in the fume hood, notice that a machine was not cleaned and locked out after use, or see that someone isn’t wearing the personal protective equipment specified by the principal investigator or by the Department of Health, Safety & Environment. Instead of just proceeding with your work, this is an appropriate time to “hit the Pause Button” on your work and perhaps that of others.
By “hit the Pause Button,” I mean to stop working temporarily and ask anyone else affected to do so as well. You have the right and the responsibility not to work unsafely or under unsafe conditions. While Johns Hopkins can be fined for providing a workplace not “free from recognized hazards,” [language from the OSH Act of 1970] employees (and that includes graduate students) can also be fined by Maryland Occupational Safety and Health for not complying with occupational safety and health regulations. [Maryland Code 5-104(b)(2)] Such a fine is unusual, but not unknown.
If the safety issue relates just to you, you may be able to resolve it easily by yourself—capping the chemical waste bottle mentioned above, for example. If not, consult with your principal investigator to determine how best to handle the situation. If the PI is not available, you are not permitted to continue work—the workplace must be free from recognized hazards before you begin work and while the work continues. (Alternatives to contacting the PI include contacting your department’s faculty safety officer, the Lab Safety Advocate, or the Department of Health, Safety & Environment.) Note that if you resolve an unsafe situation yourself, you must still report the occurrence to your PI; the PI needs to know to prevent the condition from occurring again.
More complicated is if the safety issue involves someone else. A colleague who fails to put on a lab coat and eye protection because “I’m just going to do this one little thing” is taking unnecessary chances. If you observe that individual doing something you know is wrong, and he or she becomes injured, part of the fault is ethically yours. In addition, someone who takes shortcuts like skipping personal protective equipment may take more shortcuts—some of which could endanger you!
Politely point out the at-risk behavior and request that your colleague rectify the situation. If you’re not certain the behavior is risky, ask your colleague to explain the situation to you. Many people, particularly those who have just forgotten (as opposed to deliberately avoided a safety measure) will be grateful for the reminder. If the person refuses to work safely, contact your principal investigator or the Department of Health, Safety & Environment (410-516-8798) for assistance. The Laboratory Safety Advocate, Dr. Dan Kuespert, CSP (firstname.lastname@example.org) is also available to PIs for consultation on handling personnel exhibiting repeated at-risk behaviors.
The safety of what goes on in your lab is your responsibility—whether or not you’re the one conducting the work. Be willing to speak up and “hit the Pause Button” when necessary to protect yourself and your colleagues.