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How to conduct laboratory work safely in higher education?

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Published on Monday, 22 May 2017

Science laboratories can contain a multitude of hazards which, if not managed properly, can lead to various risks and cause incidents ranging from minor issues to serious accidents. In the worst cases, very costly damages as well as mutilation and death have been among the consequences. To raise awareness among UL personnel, Dr David Kinnison, Faculty Safety Advisor for Natural and Environmental Sciences at the University of Southampton, visited the University of Luxembourg on 8 May 2017.

On this occasion, he gave a lecture entitled “Where does safety fit in the university physical sciences laboratory?” to an attentive audience of students, researchers and administrative staff members. He started with a clear example: in October 2005, a massive fire devastated Southampton Fibre Optics Centre, a leading electronics and computer science research unit with more than 200 staff members. Fortunately, no one was hurt but the building with valuable equipment and research went up in smoke. “At that time, it was difficult to admit the reality, we were all devastated, the reason is still unknown but it started accidently”, comments Dr Kinnison. He also brought up a second example, an explosion at the University of Mulhouse, where unfortunately one person was killed and one seriously injured.

To avoid such situations, it is very important to manage correctly health and safety in higher education. First of all, Dr. Kinnison focused on human resources, it is crucial to have qualified persons in charge of these aspects in each faculty who can not only take decisions and measures rapidly, but also report directly to the head of the research units and even to the Dean. In addition, by providing both students and staff members with continuous training, these groups are always aware and informed about new procedures, incidents, dangerous products, to name a few. “For instance, we cannot assume that our students know the potential risks of liquid nitrogen”, argues David Kinnison. “The key fact is to educate them to be responsible and check by themselves on a regular basis”.

Then, the definition and implementation of a health and safety policy with clear procedures is a must, based on a recognised management system such as ISO 14001 “Environmental management systems Requirements with guidance for use” or the future ISO 45001 “Occupational health and safety”. In this sense, it is essential to identify hazard and estimate risks in a dedicated database, to take measures and to ensure regular inspections and reporting. “From my experience, slip, trip and fall-related accidents are the most common incidents in laboratories and these risks are often underestimated. Similarly, solvents which contain a lot of energy and burn rapidly can cause secondary fires”, mentions Dr Kinnison.

An important example of common but unnecessary hazards at research institutions is the use of inadequate equipment, such as domestic fridges for storing chemicals. Dr. Kinnison showed disturbing photos of the possible consequences of such habits, where a spark from a domestic fridge had ignited an explosion that caused serious and costly damage, luckily without human casualties that time. He went through some other examples where people were injured, in one case mutilated, showing that they could have been avoided with better risk management and safety training.

Dr David Kinnison concluded his speech by saying that health and safety are everyone’s concern and is integral of research work. Many issues and concerns were raised and discussed during his presentation. Moreover, during his visit, he advised different representatives of the University of Luxembourg on how the institution should act to ensure that research is conducted in a safe manner, without restricting the ambitions to do cutting-edge research, including new experiments.