Not long ago, a colleague of mine spilled an acid mixture on his clothes.
He knew what to do: He immediately removed his lab coat, pants, socks, and shoes. He washed off his legs and feet, even though he didn't think the acids got to his skin. He called the appropriate emergency number and closed the lab.
The accident occurred at a time when few people were around (think weekend, holiday, night), but my colleague knew I was working in my office in another building on campus, so he called me. I ran over to his lab, arriving after the campus police but before the paramedics.
Fortunately there were spare clothes in the lab, so he was dressed, albeit strangely, and sitting in a small office near the lab. I talked to the police and one of the paramedics in the corridor, giving them some of the information they needed for their forms.
I know that accidents can happen, even to experienced researchers like my colleague. Most of the safety training I have experienced, either from in-person workshops or via online modules, has seemed like a waste of time, but I think that the training serves the general (and important) purpose of reminding us that accidents can (and probably will) happen. Everyone in the lab needs to know what to do, and the right safety equipment must be accessible and available. Information, equipment, and awareness need to be updated on a regular basis.
The fact of the accident was not remarkable, and fortunately no one was hurt, but there are few aspects of the incident that were notable for me:
- The campus police were great. I had a bad experience with a rude and patronizing campus police officer a few years ago, so it was very nice to meet these very professional, polite, and competent police officers.
- The paramedics were not great. They were completely unprepared to deal with a situation like this. I am sure that they know well what to do when they encounter someone bleeding or broken, but they had no idea what to do in this case of a possible exposure to a dangerous chemical. My colleague was 90% sure that no acid got to his skin, but he wasn't 100% sure, as he explained to the paramedics. The paramedics didn't even seem to realize that time was important. My colleague didn't look injured, and they wasted valuable time making phone calls to other people who also had no idea what to do. They asked questions of my colleague and me, then relayed something completely different into the phone. One of them even started to tell an anecdote about something that happened to his father years ago. My colleague angrily cut him off, the paramedic told him to "calm down", and the campus police in the hall heard those words and became alert to a possible "situation". They thought that my colleague was refusing medical care, and the incident spiraled into an absurd series of misunderstandings. That was bizarre, but the most disturbing thing was that paramedics working within the call range of a major research university festooned with labs containing dangerous materials not only had no idea what to do, but didn't even seem to know how to get the information quickly. When told the best course of action by my colleague and me, they ignored us and made more phone calls.
What I learned:
- Be as self-sufficient as possible for emergency procedures. In recent years it has seemed to me that my university has been emphasizing a "just call 911" message in safety training rather than providing specific information and materials necessary to deal with an emergency on-site. Certainly it is important to call 911, but you can't rely on paramedics to know how to deal with all situations.
- Store colleagues' phone numbers in your phone. Even if they aren't people you would call to chat or text a cute picture of your cat, you may need to contact a colleague outside of working hours in an emergency situation. The phone numbers of colleagues who tend to work unusual hours and/or colleagues who would be able to help you in particular types of emergency situations could be useful some day. This doesn't just apply to lab accidents. If you work on campus outside of normal weekday working hours, you might want to have some colleagues' contact numbers stored in your phone.
- Keep spare clothes in the lab in case you have to get undressed unexpectedly in a semi-public setting -- advice that is related to the title of this post. My grandmother was thinking more of car accidents and events of that nature when she relayed the classic maternal advice about always wearing nice underwear, but, if you care about such things, it could also apply to working in a lab.
6 months ago