The consequences of using reusables is substantial. First of all, they are moderately comfortable so people wear them continuously – this leads to students wandering all over the place while wearing them – out students use them on the lab computers and spectrometers, the scales and so on, contaminating pretty well everything. Yup, it’s bad practice and that’s what we tell them. But it still happens. Secondly because they are comfortable they lead to some rather thoughtless behaviour – it’s common to see students put a gloved finger onto a hotplate to check to see if it’s hot. A few times they melt the rubber onto the tip of their finger. It doesn’t seem very bright, but more worryingly, it’s probably an indication symptom of risk compensation, the tendency of an individual to alter their behaviour when they feel safer, much as if you play football you’ll tackle that little bit more aggressively if you’re wearing shin pads than if you’re not. …
But there is another dimension to this: waste disposal. By using disposable gloves we end up having to send a quarter of a million gloves a year to be incinerated each eyar. These have been used once, and a careful student shouldn’t really have got anything onto the gloves anyway, so they are probably pretty clean. Isn’t it incredibly wasteful? For the sake of an unknown and possibly questionable increase in personal safety we end up spending tens of thousands of pounds for items that could be reused. And then have to pay for someone to take all this stuff away.
He proposes at the end to have students use reusable gloves. Seems reasonable. But in further discussions with his colleagues, out came this:
One of the comments that came out of these discussions was the number of incidents we’ve had over the past few years involving students transferring chemicals from their gloves to their face, neck, and elsewhere. In fact, if you stand and watch students in the lab – as I had occasion to this week – you see them contantly adjusting their safety specs and scratching their neck, nose, ears at regular intervals. All wearing gloves, of course. And because they are wearing the gloves, they are blissfully unaware that there might be anything on the outside of the glove. …
By providing gloves we are actually lulling our students into a false sense of security. They get stuff on their gloves and even if they’re aware of it, they just assume that because they have gloves on “it’s OK”. Risk compensation works in mysterious ways. …
Now I’m not saying that one shouldn’t wear gloves under any circumstance. Far from it. Clearly there are issues of scale and of context. But what I am saying is that for the vast majority of procedures like the ones we conduct in our teaching labs, gloves may look smart but they have precisely the opposite effect to what we intend.
It’s wrong, it’s wasteful, and it’s expensive. And we have plenty of, for the most part, fairly minor incidents to deal with that probably would not happen if our students didn’t wear them.
So the plan is to go even further and actively discourage students from wearing gloves as a matter of routine in our labs. Why? Because, completely contrary to “common sense”, we believe they’ll be safer and actually work better in the lab.
I’ve written before about schools’ decisions not to have students in teaching labs wear gloves or lab coats. But I know that some still believe that minimum lab attire, no matter what, should be goggles, lab coat, and gloves. Also, you should wear personal protective equipment to account for everything going on in the lab: You may never spill something, but what about your labmates?
I’m curious to hear what Safety Zone readers think: Is there a minimum set of PPE that should be worn for teaching labs (perhaps accompanied by a contamination demo, like Seattle University does with fluorescent powder), or is this something to be considered on a lab-by-lab basis? And what about for research labs?