Falling Asleep at the Lab Bench by Kathy Heinemann, Research Safety Specialist and Greg Kwolek, Senior Research Safety Specialist

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration recognizes the link between worker fatigue and work-related accidents and injuries. As reported in the University’s Santayana Report, “Safety Never Sleeps, but You Should!” (https://www1.columbia.edu/sec/cu/ehrs/LabLessonsLearnedNews.html) , there were two recent incidents of laboratory fires that started when containers of ethanol, a flammable liquid, were spilled in close proximity to lit Bunsen burners. Both incidents occurred outside of typical working hours, and the research personnel cited fatigue as a possible contributing factor. In each case, the burners were left on after completing a previous task. Thankfully, in both circumstances the researchers were unharmed and were able to extinguish the flames with a fire extinguisher.

These incidents offer us an important reminder to sleep enough each night. The body needs sleep to carry out basic functions such as tissue repair and growth, muscle development, and memory consolidation. These restorative processes at night can make or break our attention and performance during the day. If you are in the middle of a week with mounting fatigue, think about ways that you can stay safe in your laboratory. Try to avoid working in the laboratory outside of normal working hours to avoid shift work disorder.

Hydrating and moving around are the most important tools to use when combatting fatigue. Caffeinated beverages can only go so far, and the resulting dehydration can lead to further drowsiness. Make sure you drink enough water, and keep your blood circulating. Exercise, even something as simple as going for a short walk, can rejuvenate the body. Can you get to bed earlier that night? Can you take a 20-minute power nap during your day? If you are feeling too tired to function optimally, it is important that you postpone your work with hazardous materials until you feel alert enough to safely execute it.

Making adequate sleep a priority will not just cure fatigue, it may also alleviate related symptoms such as stress and anxiety. So, if you need an excuse to go to sleep earlier, remember that there are a host of benefits to your safety, the safety of those around you, as well as your research and mental health.


Recent Additions to the EH&S Team

EH&S is very pleased to have Research Safety Specialists Augustine Ogbonnaya, Kathryn Heinemann, Jessica Phippard, and Associate Health Physicists Samuel Dindayal and Ian Broderick join the EH&S team. Please join us in welcoming our newest additions.

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