A Minor Situation

The research and educational programs at Columbia University benefit from the presence of many individuals who are not faculty, staff, or registered students, but who come here to observe, to learn or to teach.  The presence of volunteers, trainees, and observers promotes the mission of the institution. We have an obligation to ensure that their activities are conducted in a safe, professional, and responsible manner; as a result, they all must attend the same safety trainings required of faculty, staff and students.   Special provisions apply to minors, due to the unique hazards that may be found in labs.  No one under the age of 14 is allowed in a University laboratory at any time (even with parental supervision).  Additionally, no one under the age of 18 may handle radioactive materials or research animals, nor may they be left alone in the laboratory.  For more information please visit http://www.ehs.columbia.edu/VolTraineesPolicy.html.

Laboratory Spills-Guidelines and Examples

Nothing can alter a day’s plans like a chemical spill.  While no one plans on a spill, everyone should know what to do so that normal activities can be resumed safely.

First, alert people in the immediate area; everyone should leave the lab and hold their breath if the material is volatile.  Close all doors leading to affected area.  Notify the laboratory supervisor and/or principal investigator.   Next is the decision process as to whether laboratory personnel are sufficiently trained, knowledgeable and equipped to handle the situation. If the situation is manageable, lab personnel can address the spill.  Consult an MSDS for the material’s hazardous properties, incompatibilities, and other safety information.  Don appropriate protective equipment-safety glasses, gloves, and a long sleeve lab coat.  If the spill involves a flammable liquid, turn off all ignition and heat sources.

For unmanageable spills, who are you going to call? Not Ghostbusters... Call EH&S (212)854-8749 at Morningside or (212)305-6780 at CUMC for instructions and assistance between 9am-5pm weekdays and Public Safety (212)854-5555 at Morningside or (212)305-7979 at CUMC at all other times.  Be prepared to give the chemical name, volume spilled, location (building and room), and any other pertinent information. Have a person knowledgeable about the incident available to provide information to responders.  Keep personnel away from affected area until EH&S can evaluate the situation; assist anyone contaminated by chemicals by helping them remove contaminated clothing.  When feasible, flush the affected body area with water.

Where injured staff and students obtain medical treatment depends upon campus location, employment status (staff vs. student), and time of day (on nights and weekends, it will be either the New York Presbyterian or St. Lukes-Roosevelt ER. Wouldn’t this be good time to review the EH&S Emergency Response Wall Guide, just in case?  Call us if you need one.

  • On a recent Friday night, a lab was cleaning out some old boxes in a shared cold room. Hidden behind one of them was a bottle of acetaldehyde, a flammable, malodorous compound. The bottle broke, creating a potentially explosive situation – a cold room filled with flammable vapors waiting to be ignited!  Luckily, the lab’s quick action–calling Public Safety and EH&S–averted a disaster.  The spill was cleaned and the room reopened several hours later.
  • A few weeks later, there was an accidental release of trimethylphosphine, a flammable material that is air and oxygen sensitive. The reaction of the lab personnel was perfect.  They isolated the area and put up signage to let other lab members know not to enter the room and made sure all ignition sources were off.  EH&S was called to address the situation.  The material was immediately contained, quenched, and packaged by EH&S staff wearing the proper personal protection equipment.  The room was cleared for use the following morning after industrial hygiene monitoring was completed. 

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