Keep the Safety in your “Health & Safety”

COVID-19 has brought many new challenges to work in our laboratories, and it is only natural that attention focuses on the new risks. Nevertheless, it’s important to remain vigilant about old risks—the “routine” laboratory safety hazards that occur daily in a science or engineering lab.

Because these old hazards—tools & equipment, hazardous chemicals, biological agents other than COVID-19—are still here and still pose the same risks, we need to maintain awareness of those risks. Established safety procedures (http://hpo.johnshopkins.edu/hse/) still apply. Some hazards have become enhanced because of the coronavirus—many more people are working alone in the lab, for example.

If you have questions about how to adapt your work and current safety procedures to work well with the COVID-19 precautions, contact Dr. Daniel Kuespert, Homewood Laboratory Safety Advocate, at dkuespert@jhu.edu. See Dr. Kuespert’s website, https://labsafety.jhu.edu, for more safety information. As always, emergency response is available from Security at 410-516-7777.

Serious lab allergies from peptide coupling agents

The Journal of Organic Chemistry is reporting a case of severe allergic reactions (i.e., life-threatening anaphylaxis) developed to reagents used for peptide coupling (assembling short proteins). Any lab worker using HATU, HBTU, or HCTU, three uronium coupling agents, should read this link and speak with his or her PI regarding any necessary changes to use protocols. Also please contact Dan Kuespert, Homewood Laboratory Safety Advocate, for assistance.

(J. Org. Chem. 2019, DOI: 10.1021/acs.joc.9b03280)

FDA Points Out – Even Laser Pointers Present Dangers!

When purchasing potentially hazardous products, it is important to ensure that the device meets both your practical requirements and all necessary safety requirements. With the proliferation of lasers as tools and toys of everyday life, it is easy to forget that they present risks to users and others.

The Food and Drug Administration recently issued a consumer alert – Illuminating Facts About Laser Pointers, 13 June 2019. When using laser pointers, be sure to follow all recommended safety protocols, including (quoting the document):

  1. Never aim or shine a laser pointer at anyone.
  2. Don’t buy laser pointers for your children.
  3. Before purchasing a laser pointer, make sure it has the following information on the label:
    • a statement that it complies with Chapter 21 CFR (the Code of Federal Regulations)
    • the manufacturer or distributor’s name and the date of manufacture
    • a warning to avoid exposure to laser radiation
    • the class designation, ranging from Class I to IIIa. Class IIIb and IV products should be used only by individuals with proper training and in applications where there is a legitimate need for these high-powered products.

Your source for assistance in selecting and reviewing laser(s) is your Laser Safety Advocate, Niel Leon, Nleon1@jhu.edu.

PS: Laser pointers are often overpowered, as this 3 August 2016 blog post notes. Niel can test your laser pointer(s) or other laser-containing device(s) to ensure that it can be safely used here at JHU.

Unattended Experiments

Do you leave experiments running after-hours or over the weekend? Are you ready in case an incident might occur? Establishing clear procedures for late or unattended work may help prevent a minor incident from becoming a serious one. See this article by Richard Paluzzi, a noted lab safety expert, for more detail.

The Laboratory Safety Advocates Office has developed an unattended experiment form that you should fill and post on the laboratory door and next to the experiment. If you have questions about filling out this form contact your PI, laboratory manager or the Laboratory Safety Advocates Office.

Small Laser Controlled Area Improves Lab Utility and Reduces Costs.

The Lab Safety Advocate’s office recently worked with a research group that uses a large shared lab. A new laser instrument (a Raman spectroscope) required all in the lab to use very dark laser protective goggles in an already-dark room; this would have interfered with operations. We established a very small Laser Controlled Area that confined the laser beam and provided a dark environment to the experiment instead of the lab, improving the experimental results and allowing other experiments to take place unimpeded simultaneously in the lab. This saved about $2,000 in laser protective eyewear costs.

Sodium hydride decomposes certain solvents-violently.

An article in the American Chemical Society’s Chemical & Engineering News newsmagazine draws attention to the hazard posed by sodium hydride when used in certain polar aprotic solvents such as dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO) and dimethylformamide (DMF). Although these hazards have been known for fifty years, it appears that use of NaH with these solvents is common, judging from the large number of published syntheses that use them together. It is recommended that NaH not be used with polar aprotic solvents at all. See https://cen.acs.org/safety/lab-safety/Chemists-continue-forget-safety-concerns-about-sodium-hydride/97/web/2019/08 for more detail.

Hitting the “Pause Button”

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 may include 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 (dkuespert@jhu.edu) 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.