Laboratory Accidents: Lessons Learned

Rules, Regulations, Guidelines.
EH&RS/EH&S is in the business of communicating and following them, and we are sensitive to the fact that a laundry list of  Rules, Regulations, Guidelines can sound like just that-a laundry list.  So here are some actual events, randomly gathered, from an assortment of incidents EH&RS/EH&S responded to during the winter of 2007.
*A bottle containing nitric acid was stored in a cabinet for an indeterminate length of time.  The bottle ruptured, probably as the result of a pressure build-up caused by a reaction between the acid and residues of materials previously contained in the bottle.  The subsequent clean-up took approximately 40 person-hours by EH&RS/EH&S spill responders.


*A large spill of propionic acid resulted in contamination of the entire department floor. The person(s)  
   responsible for the spill abandoned the scene. EH&RS/EH&S was notified of the event when a staff
   member from another lab reported a foul odor.
*A bromine spill, caused by poor housekeeping in the laboratory fume hood, needed to be cleaned up by EH&RS/EH&S.

Lessons Learned:
Accidents can happen anywhere, anytime: Laboratory research has inherent risks to it, which lead to..
1The importance of secondary containment:   In the case of the nitric acid spill the bottle was in a plastic tub serving as a secondary

container, which limited the impact of the spill. It is important to ensure that all acids are stored in secondary containers or acid cabinets-never on metal shelves.
2The necessity of proper training to clean up a spill: Anyone who works in a laboratory must attend a live safety training session offered through EH&RS/EH&S. These training sessions offer valuable information about how to properly clean up a spill.  The schedule for live training sessions is available at:

3Good housekeeping practices:  Poor housekeeping in the laboratory fume hood was a contributing factor in the bromine spill.  Keep your laboratory and fume hood clean and free of materials that are not being used for the procedure at hand.

Laser Safety at Columbia University

Lasers used in CD players, checkout scanners, and printers are embedded in the equipment with the laser source inaccessible to the user.  But research involving lasers usually involves manipulation of the exposed beam through a maze of optical elements, presenting opportunities for accidental exposure every step of the way.

The chief hazards of lasers used in research are the highly-focused, energy-dense beams of monochromatic light and the high voltages needed to operate such equipment.  Injuries can happen in an instant and result in lifelong damage or death from electric shock.  Lasers present a unique package of hazards, and their use
at Columbia University is addressed in the CU Laser Safety Program.  Three aspects of the Laser Safety Program that are the most relevant to laser end-users are

Laser Registration, Safety Training, and Inspections.

Before a Class III or IV laser can be purchased or transferred from another institution, the user must complete a laser registration form, available at
.  The user is asked to list specifics about the laser (wavelength, power, pulsed or continuous wave, nominal hazard zone, etc.), most of which can be obtained directly from the manufacturer for non-homemade laser products. 

The user is also asked to list the personnel who will be directly involved in using the laser, and other questions about the research applications of the particular device.  All users are required to attend Laser Safety Training conducted by

EH&RS/EH&S. Training covers hazard recognition and control, and an overview of the CU laser policy.  Instruction in actual laser use is the responsibility of PIs and senior members of research groups, as well as representatives from the laser manufacturer.   It is best for laser users to attend in-person training at first, and take annual refresher training through RASCAL thereafter.

A Laser Safety Program has been in existence for a number of years at CU and the current round of laser inspections is nearly complete. A primary goal of the inspections is to gather information about how lasers are used in research settings, and to see laser controls in actual, rather than theoretical, use.  Information gathered is also being used to enhance existing training courses and other elements of the Laser Safety Program.

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