Death at every turn


Wolverine-like powers are a side-effect of safety inductions. Image:

I no longer fear death as I have recently become immortal. I can walk through battle fields unscathed, sky dive sans parachute and car surf without fear of injury. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s the case. It certainly feels like safety is pulsing through my veins now that I’ve undergone a safety induction.

The main point of a safety induction is to make people stop and think of everything that can hurt or kill when undertaking a particular task or even when being in a particular location.

At a winery, there are large machines known as ‘crushers’ that can effortlessly do to an arm what they do to grapes; huge open vats of bubbling, seething liquids that can suck you under like something out of a B grade horror movie; and the rolling potential agony of the forklift. Not only does a forklift have pointed prongs of pain at the front but the potential to driving over you when reversing and can drop an unbalanced load on your head.

In the lab there are chemicals that can kill instantly or slow and painfully or cause irreparable damage like blindness. A quick scan of any commonly-used lab solvent reveals the stuff of nightmares. Danger is the norm in the lab.

Now that I have been inducted into the realm of safety, I can see hazards everywhere. That crack in the footpath is a potential trip hazard and should be fixed immediately. There are cars driving at speeds that can kill an unwary pedestrian should anyone accidentally cross the road whilst texting so the speed limit should be lowered. A tree near a building might cause grievous scratches to anyone not ducking low enough under the branch and should be cut down.

This is a dangerous world and no matter how hard we try to eliminate all dangers more just keep cropping up. Perhaps a better solution is to introduce safety inductions for life. A proper walk through and checklist of all the things that can kill you at any given moment, wherever you are and whatever you are doing.

Similar to the brilliant Dumb Ways to Die YouTube clips but with a form to sign stating that you Acknowledge and Accept the Risks of Living and understand that Not Complying with the Safety Rules of Life will result in you being Removed from Life permanently.

Maybe then we can finally feel safe and in control. But maybe not to the level of actually car surfing.

Living dangerously: The hidden hazards of lab research


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.