Slap on those safety glasses!

My colleague and co-blogger, Jeff, is out this week and asked me to post this for him.

One of the most time-consuming elements of preparing an article for publication is finding good photos. And when you get one that works, it is hard to lose it.

Last week, I lined up a lab photo to go with an article on a Department of Energy research grant program. It hadn’t been easy. The DOE program funds startup research and it is hard to take a picture of something that barely exists.

But I got a good one—two researchers, a student and faculty member, intently overlooking what appeared to be a small reactor vessel. Absent from the photo was any form of eye protection.

I tried to sneak it through the C&ENews editor. For a wild moment, I even thought about photo-shopping glasses onto their faces. But the magazine has become increasing vigilant about checking lab photos for eye protection. And that is that.

I contacted the university lab where the photo was taken and was told:

We have lab safety guidelines which are site-specific in our labs. In the area where this photo was taken, both (the subjects) were following the particular safety guidelines for that area of that lab.

That view just sets many of our readers on fire. I have been told that “Everyone should put the glasses on the minute they enter a lab, no matter what they are doing.” I have gotten phone calls and seen more than a few letters to the editor saying the same thing. [Jyllian notes: See this week's letters to the editor for a reader's concern about photos of researchers not wearing gloves.] And I have written stories of lab techs being injured during explosion while they were in the lab changing from protective clothing to street clothes.

But I wonder if the safety glasses avoidance issue is so big and widespread it demands a universal, absolute dictum? Are there places in a lab where safety glasses are just plain unnecessary and such a pain that we’d do well to just leave them off?

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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7 Comments

  1. I’ve always suspected that the true reason for zero tolerance policies on safety glasses is to socially enforce the core protective aspects of wearing safety glasses in laboratories. It sort of “builds a wall” around the “You should really protect your eyes while doing chemistry” rule, so that you’ll never even be able to breach that core idea.

    When I worked in large pharma, the zero tolerance policy was in full effect: all visitors, suits included, had to dress up in ridiculous paper lab coats and the ugly lab glasses. I always thought it was extreme overkill, but it certainly emphasized the no-deviations policy to the typical bench guy.

  2. Sharpless’ eye accident is all the motivation I need to always wear goggles or glasses in the lab.

  3. @CJ: Yes, you’re right, it’s part of building a safety culture. And at C&EN we’re definitely aware of the role that we play in that.

    @jbone: One of the things I heard last week went something along the lines of “you can walk with a prosthetic leg, you can wave with a prosthetic arm, but you can’t see with a prosthetic eye.”

  4. In order to appreciate the vocal, often knee-jerk reaction some people exhibit when they see a photograph in a lab setting which seemingly depicts inadequate PPE, a brief history of the issue is needed. From the time the Division of Chemical Health and Safety was probationary within ACS, more than 30 years ago, some members of CHAS were writing strongly worded Letters to the Editor whenever a person was shown in a lab without safety glasses.

    Safety glasses have been the minimum acceptable eye protection for all persons in laboratories since the ‘70’s. While current practice is to use a risk-based assessment of PPE, safety glasses have generally been deemed mandatory at all times. The Letters to the Editor increased as C&EN began using more and more lab images. Industry labs realized that images which showed their labs with apparently inadequate eye protection spoke poorly of their corporate image. Academic labs slowly realized the same thing.

    At sometime during the past ten years, (I think it was in 2004), the Chair of CHAS and the Editor of C&EN worked out procedures to address safety issues in photographs, as well as to provide C&EN with timely reviews of safety-related editorial content. This agreement is working well. As pointed out by Jeff, C&EN would not allow an image showing people in a lab without safety glasses to be published.

    While risk-based PPE use is correct, it is difficult to convey the risk assessment in a photo; thus, when people are depicted in labs, show them wearing safety glasses. To illustrate the point, I was interviewed by NPR in a lab setting, and the campus absolutely insisted that I wear safety glasses (the news crew, including the interviewer, Jeffrey Brown, also wore safety glasses. The lab in question was an unused teaching lab. This was strictly image, not risk-based safety.

    As to gloves, there is a movement toward wearing gloves whenever one handles chemicals. While there is still debate as to the universality of this PPE, C&EN could minimize Letters to the Editor on this subject, by adopting a glove standard in keeping with its safety glass standard.

  5. But Neal, C&EN writers and editors are neither safety experts nor are we generally present in the labs we show in photos. Where do we draw the line between being prudent about what’s on our pages and accepting that the hazards of the situation have been evaluated on-site and the precautions (or lack thereof) are appropriate?

  6. The argument over gloves is specious. I was sternly reprimanded as a new grad student for wearing both of my gloves out of the lab. The purpose of the gloves is to protect the user from being exposed to whatever they are working with. Wearing both of them out of the lab means you are touching common items like door handles, elevator buttons, and the like with whatever has come into contact with your gloves, thereby exposing bystanders (some of whom aren’t even scientists) to these chemicals. We were required to take off at least one glove if we were leaving the lab.

    I am continually irritated at how many biologists/biochemists exit their labs with both gloves on that they have used to work with bacteria or fungi (this same group of people often don’t feel the need to wear a labcoat or even safety glasses). Simply wearing gloves in the lab does not (and should not) imply that proper safety protocols are being observed, and people need to wake up and realize that rather than spewing rhetoric over a photo.

  7. Everyone in our labs wears safety glasses. Some resist wearing splash goggles, even though they are handling organic solvents, wastewater samples, or solutions with pH 10.

    Why? “They don’t look cool.” or “I don’t wear goggles when I put vinegar on my salad.” or “I’ve never been splashed in x years.” It’s reminiscent of the excuses people used to make about why they didn’t want to wear seat belts.

    You can disobey the laws of God or man, but you can’t disobey the laws of nature.