Living dangerously: The hidden hazards of lab research

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Researchers experience this sort of adrenaline in everyday lab work. Almost.

The lab is a dangerous place, as recent occupational health and safety regulations demonstrate. From a world where keyboards come with health warnings – seriously – office-based risk-assessment officers must have had a meltdown when they first entered a lab. They would have watched, gibbering, as chemists washed their hands in benzene and mouth-pipetted concentrated hydrochloric acid solutions. More recently we’ve honed the lab protective gear with swish new lab coats, safety glasses and gloves, but there are still dangers unaccounted for by any regulations.

Safety labels can induce more curiosity than caution in regular lab-dwellers and prompt such questions as “but what kind of mutations will it cause?” and “how much would I have to spill before it really burns a hole in my skin?” Lists of common dangerous chemicals are always good reminders that common-as-muck solvents can still be hazardous.

Some chemicals no longer carry the inherent threat that they did during undergraduate studies. Liquid nitrogen was once the most awe-inspiring addition to any lab because of the potential to freeze body parts solid. Now, due to my involvement in student science activities, liquid nitrogen only inspires memories of how mixing it with cream and sugar produces the world’s best ice cream.

But it’s the lab equipment, not the chemicals, that are the real hazard. This includes the ghost vibrations that go through your whole arm after a day of re-suspending pellets with the vortex mixer, the deafness I’m sure to get from years of exposure to the perpetual hum of refrigerators and fume-hoods, and then there’s the micropipette. This simple device for transferring less than 1 mL of liquid has caused so many researchers so much pain.

A friend recently returned from the doctor with her hand bandaged after weeks of aching. Arthritis? No. Tendonitis? No. Turns out, years of micropipetting had built up the muscle mass of her thumb so much that it is started to impact her whole hand. On the bright side, she can now start a new career as a model for body building magazines. Anyone can build up arm muscles. It takes a special skill to develop thumb muscles.

This makes lab equipment even more dangerous than keyboards but without the warning labels. And researchers face this every day for the good of science and the love of data, but mostly to feed their hidden adrenaline addictions.

 

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