Category: Safety Education

safety education in note index

Situational awareness

Situational awareness is having a “feel” for what’s going on around you—both the current state and how it might or will change in the near future. It’s a complicated topic (refer to Wikipedia for an introduction), but not having it can easily lead to incidents. I had a close call last year that occurred because I lost situational awareness.

I was photographing a worksite for a charity that recruits teams from disparate Howard County organizations varying from the County Police to church groups to employees of a well-known think tank to perform necessary repairs at the homes of the elderly and needy. It was at the latter’s “project house” that I almost got my brains knocked out.

The workers had removed a wheelbarrow full of soil from the yard while installing a new walkway, and they had procured a trailer to haul the soil and other debris away to the county landfill. I was standing at the front of the trailer taking pictures when the team hoisted the heavy wheelbarrow onto the trailer—setting it behind the axle. The resultant forces flipped the front of the trailer upward, and the trailer tongue (the metal bit that attaches to the tow vehicle) missed me by inches.

I had lost situational awareness—I failed to predict exactly what state my surroundings were in and in particular failed to predict how they were about to change. One can attribute part of this close call to “photographer’s hubris,” that is, the feeling that when one is behind the lens, one is indestructible. The major thing I failed to note, though, is that “charity home improvements” really means “construction site operated by amateurs,” and that I should be on my guard for dangerous conditions.

How often have you lost situational awareness—in the lab or on the road, perhaps? What was the result—did you have a close call, were there no consequences, or was there some sort of incident? What was the deciding factor in what the consequences were—chance?

Remember that in the lab we are all amateurs—so keep an eye on what you and your labmates are doing at all times.

Unattended experiments

Some experiments take time: hours, days, even weeks. This means that the experiment will be set up and running in the lab while you are not there. You have an ethical obligation to prevent harm to others in the lab by ensuring that they are aware of your experiment and its hazards. Make sure they know:

  • What the purpose of the experiment is;
  • To whom it belongs;
  • What behavior indicates that something has gone wrong; and
  • What to do if something does go wrong.

You could tell the members of the lab all that information, but some lab members might not be present and others will promptly forget. Depending on the lab’s occupants to “know what’s going on” is foolish—your colleagues may know the general type of research you do but they are not familiar with the details of all your experiments. Far better is to post the information so that anyone in the lab can easily see what your experiment is, how to identify abnormal situations, and what to do in that event.

A sample form is available for you to use directly or adapt to your lab’s needs. (The file is in Word format for easy modification.) The form is written to allow use in teaching as well as research labs. You should prepare two copies of the form: one to post near the experimental apparatus and one to post in a safe place (like on the door). In an emergency, no one may be willing to approach the apparatus to read the information sheet!

When do you need safety eyewear? Always!

Even if you are not doing anything that “needs” safety eyewear, you still need safety eyewear in the lab!

You do not have control over all hazards in the lab—one of your fellows may walk in with a chemical bottle and suddenly drop it on the bench in front of you, or a pressurized system (like a gas cylinder regulator) may throw off a part. You are exposed to more hazards than you personally are handling—choose eyewear according to your exposure, not your specific work. There have been incidents at Homewood where uninvolved labmates were suddenly involved in someone else’s accident.

Wearing appropriate eyewear in lab or shop is also a mark of a professional scientist or engineer. If you have to be told to put on your safety glasses or goggles when visiting an industrial or governmental facility, you will be considered unprofessional, and you may not get the job for which you are interviewing. Acquire the habit of wearing safety eyewear.

Algorithm for deciding whether you need safety eyewear:

  1. Is the work you’re about to do hazardous?
    If YES, wear appropriate eyewear. Obviously, you personally need it.
  2. Is anyone else in the lab doing hazardous work?
    If YES, wear appropriate eyewear. You are exposed to their hazards.
  3. Are chemicals or compressed gases stored or used in the lab at any time?
    If YES, wear appropriate eyewear. You do not have control over falling chemical bottles, poorly secured pressurized parts, etc.
  4. Is it possible anyone else will bring hazardous work into the lab while you are there?
    If YES, wear appropriate eyewear. Somebody can walk in and drop a chemical bottle at any time, so you need to be ready.
  5. Is it possible that you will “forget” to put on your eyewear if you decide to do hazardous work—or simply not do it because “you’re just doing one little thing?”
    If YES, wear appropriate eyewear.
  6. Are you sure you won’t do anything hazardous in lab today, no one will walk in with hazardous materials or equipment, nothing hazardous is stored in the lab, and you want to exhibit bad professional habits?
    If YES, you DON’T need to wear safety eyewear.

Lab air can kill you

Equipment, experiments, and people often get dirty—a lab bench covered with cement dust, a drill press clogged with metal shavings, wet glassware that needs drying, or even a researcher covered with sawdust after cutting a wooden part. Some people look to the compressed air tap or cylinder in the lab as a quick way to clean off.

Did you know this can kill?

Even a relatively low-pressure stream of air can propel chips, dust, and parts through the air at high velocity; the flow from a 20psi air line can be supersonic. If this material strikes someone, it can cause serious injury. If the injury is to the eye, the victim may be permanently blinded.

Even worse, a few tens of psi pressure can easily inject air beneath the skin, inflating body parts like balloons—and causing excruciating pain. If air reaches the bloodstream, it can cause air embolisms—blockages in narrow blood vessels—as well as clots & ruptures in vital areas such as the brain. Uncontrolled air injection can be deadly.

Read tips for safely handling compressed air at Compressed air misuse.

JHU chemical waste disposal

Anyone generating chemical waste must take the on-line Chemical Waste Management class on myLearning. Chemical waste may be taken to the Macaulay Hall waste collection room (basement of Macaulay–use the ramp opposite New Chemistry Building) on Thursdays, from 9-12. Use the Chemical Waste Disposal Form to register your waste first.

If your building is not connected by tunnel to Macaulay, use the online form to arrange an in-lab pickup during the Thursday hours that the room in Macaulay is not manned.

All labs that generate chemical waste are required to have trained individuals to maintain the Satellite Accumulation Area. That training is provided by the Chemical Waste Management class.

Chemical waste disposal is free to labs at Homewood unless your chemical is “unknown.” There is a $450 charge for disposal of unknown chemicals–in that instance, technicians must use an expensive test kit to characterize your waste. Yet another reason to always label your chemicals!

Contact HSE at 6-8798 if you have any questions.

What to do if you can’t follow a safety rule

Sometimes, safety rules can be impractical. This can happen if the safety measure compromises the experimental intent, for example, or if it protects against a hazard that is not actually present in that specific case. Excessive cost can be a reason to vary from standard safety practices as well.

When it is necessary to omit a standard practice, it is often possible to craft solutions that offer equivalent safety. This can involve anything from simply getting permission from Health, Safety, and Environment (when there is no actual hazard) or completely re-evaluating the experimental design and construction with the help of a safety professional.

Contact Dan Kuespert, Lab Safety Advocate, for assistance in identifying solutions and getting permission to vary from JHU requirements.


Finding (Material) Safety Data Sheets for chemicals

Safety Data Sheets, or “SDSs” are documents that summarize relevant safety information on a chemical. The old name, “Material Safety Data Sheet” is obsolete.

JHU uses a commercial SDS database called ChemWatch. See GOLDFFX Guide for detailed instructions on how to use ChemWatch.

The database contains hundreds of thousands of vendor/manufacturer SDSs, updated frequently, plus many “Gold” SDSs written by ChemWatch toxicologists. You should review both any manufacturer SDSs as well as the Gold SDS for the chemical you are using.

If ChemWatch does not have the SDS you need, contact the Department of Health, Safety, and Environment to request a SDS. If you are not provided with a SDS upon request to your supervisor, by law you do not have to (and should not) work with that chemical.

You must access ChemWatch from a JHU IP address. If you receive a login prompt, do not try to login with your JHED ID. Connect to the campus virtual private network (VPN) using Junos Pulse and retry.