Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Is a messy lab unsafe?


Messy much? The Chemjobber Archives
 Paul's post on gloves on doorknobs and a Hall of Shame made me think about one of my biggest faults: I'm a messy chemist.

When I was in graduate school, I would have flasks littering my hood sash, each with 50 to 100 mgs of material that was waiting, waiting to be either cleaned out or stored in a vial. Quite honestly, it got pretty bad. Sadly, not much better in my postdoc. I'm a lot better at work, but that's with a fair bit of peer pressure to Keep Things Neat.

I try to clean up the clutter, really I do -- but the tide of stuff just keeps coming. But the one critique that seems to resonate more than others is that messy labs can be a safety risk. I can think of many anecdotal stories about chemical accidents where the situation was made worse by some amount of Reagent X in unclean glassware Y that Chemist Z had failed to put away in time. In the assessments of one of the recent university lab accidents, I seem to recall (but cannot find) that because the lab was relatively neat and clutter-free, a bad accident was not made much worse.

I'll tell you this: if I found a picture of my hood in the Wall of Shame, I'd probably be humiliated and (potentially) angry. I'd also clean up my hood pretty darn fast. To paraphrase something I've said elsewhere, the only things that seem to change human behavior are guilt, greed or fear. Sigh.

18 comments:

  1. I'm suspicious of a perfectly clean hood. Makes me think nothing's going on. I never heard of anyone publishing a paper on how clean their lab is. Plus, I think the confined space makes clutter look much worse than it is- I can clean my area up for a safety inspection in ten minutes, then by the end of the day it's back to how it was before. As long as there's not BuLi sitting out or something and you can reach everything, I'm not too bothered by it. Static clutter is much worse than rotating clutter, though, cause eventually you forget what that black goo at the back of the hood is. As for glassware, I visually inspect and prerinse everything before use, assuming that whoever supposedly washed it is a moron (which isn't always far off base 8-)
    On a side note, one of the actual items on the safety checklist from our EHS drones is "hearing protection for sonicator use area." So my attitude might be rather jaded.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I don't like the constant cleaning. I like good a deep clean once a week to really give me that "big picture" feel. It makes me feel like I'm accomplishing something, even though stuff just seems to move at a snails pace. If I'm doing something unfamiliar, well ... yeah, I want things to be clean, at least in the area I am working in. If I'm doing something that could potentially kill me, but I've done many times before, like using butyl lithium, I want things to be cleaner to clean.

    Then again, how clean is clean? I mean, things like silica dust, it's everywhere. You can spend every second of your life cleaning it up.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Self-induced guilt is not enough for me. Managers bluntly telling me that cleanliness will be part of my review is enough to get my act together. After the last recent discussion, I found this posting on mental floss about 8 brilliant screw-ups [ http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/23600 ]. The respective discoveries of penicillin and photography were accomplished by messy scientists.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm definitely in the camp that will argue a messy bench will lead to more accidents. I think most data would back up my position.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I like to wipe up the most frequently-used part of my bench and hood at the end of the day and I wash dirty glassware as soon as it is produced. I hate accumulated gunk that dried up weeks ago, hood dusted with silica and Mg sulfate. I save stuff like supernatants after crystallization to be potentially used later but I try to get rid of them reasonably fast, like within a week.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I don't like to clean...Dirty labs are not unsafe...I'm suspicious of clean hoods...

    Sounds like a bunch of lazy chemists...

    ReplyDelete
  7. "Dirty labs are not unsafe..."

    Where in the post or comments does it say this, A1034?

    ReplyDelete
  8. Fine, we can all agree that a clean bench/hood is probably better. But why are the PI's (the ones not doing ANY bench) work the most fanatical about this?

    ReplyDelete
  9. I think there are different kinds of mess: clutter, filth, and hazardous junk. Filth is anything that is gross, but not hazardous. I don't have too much of a problem with clutter, because it is usually a victimless crime. What is annoying is when your neighbor starts annexing common areas with his clutter, or worse, when his clutter expands into your work area.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Ok so a friend of mine is totally anal about clutter. That being said he is probably one of the best chemists I know personally. His hood is spotless every day and he does a lot of work. That being said another insane chemist I know is the total opposite. He works fast, gets great results but his hood is a disgusting mess. I am somewhere in between, I get fed up with my hood every so often and clean it up probably once a month and slowly build up my clutter. Its not especially hard to clean as you go and like Milkshake said you can save the leftovers but they do pile up. From experience I would say that I have more glassware breakages when I have a clutter than when I don't but I get more done if I'm not worrying about cleaning. The other thing that people haven't harped on is the effect on your co-workers. It may not be an especially huge problem to a well funded and managed lab but in some cases glassware being tied up in base baths or with ambiguous leftover "I'll NMR that later" samples does have an impact on everyone around you. In our lab the cry of "where the $*^@ are all our 10mL rbf's?" is quite common. So I say to you all that its not just about safety, its about lab etiquette and efficiency.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Messy hoods indicate you're doing work. I've known plenty of "cleaners" that actually are off goofing around, and leave dummy flasks to show their advisors their fantastic work ethic....messes may be unsafe, but they resulted from real work.

    Never trust a skinny chef, as the saying goes.

    ReplyDelete
  12. @Paul AKA Chembark: LOL @ the "Oldsplice" youtube video on your site. I don't think that Columbia's EH&S would've approved of the dude's lab attire. As a biologist(?), shouldn't he be worried about contaminating his experiments with chest hair? Not that I'm a model, but I really would NOT want to see any of my former labmates so scantily clad...eew!!!

    ReplyDelete
  13. I'm too OCD to leave a dirty lab. Can't work in a gross or ill-organized space. Regardless of how much "real" work I'm doing, I 99% of the time clean up everything at the end of the day. Granted, I started with a brand new hood (http://bit.ly/9ciRvW), so right now it's still only half a day's work to do a deep cleaning/reorganizing (http://bit.ly/cT1brt <--doesn't actually look like this most of the time). Periodically, in the name of lab safety and the merit of cleanliness, I organize lab cleaning days for the whole group.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Chemjobber:

    I didn't say that "you" said "Dirty labs are not unsafe" - it's bascially what the first poster ranted about ("As long as there's not BuLi sitting out or something and you can reach everything, I'm not too bothered by it").

    Some of the attitudes of "clean hoods mean someone is not doing enough work" or "I don't trust someone with a clean hood" speaks of laziness by those chemists. It's not too hard to clean up a hood as you go. There should never be round bottom after round bottom of intermediates/products sitting in your hood. Transfer to a vial/label and put them away. Being lazy should make you suspicious as well.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Seems some folks are pretty quick to toss the "lazy" label around pretty loosely. I'll stack my list of publications up against anyone's here.

    @Scripps Florida: LOL, I was told by some grad students in my group that the guy I beat for my current postdoc position advised them to do this very thing. Might be why he didn't get the job 8-)

    ReplyDelete
  16. Nope, not tossing the "lazy" label around loosely at all...based on the ridiculous arguments put forth above ("don't trust a clean hood", "it's only dangerous if there is BuLi", etc.) the only conclusion is laziness.

    And I'm sure, Anonymous @6:11AM your publication record is just the tops. Wow, a post-doc ready to go mano-a-mano with publication record. Really, that argument (I'm better than you) never gets used on the internet does it?

    ReplyDelete
  17. @Anon 9:58AM

    I can agree with you that sometimes a lack of cleanliness results from laziness, or the feeling of being "too busy" to stop and clean up - I've suffered from these exact feelings myself.

    That said, I've known close colleagues who I'd call "super-cleaners" who really get in their own way more than anything. Know the type? They only use unchipped NMR tubes, are freakish about scratches and chinks in Erlenmeyers, change labcoats and gloves at the slightest spill, and stop to do all their glassware after every reaction.

    I, for one, feel like that guy slows himself down in the long run.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I am currently working at a glue factory as quality control and the mess is unbelievable, there are bottles of chemicals open, dry glue un bags open, glue so stuck to the floor for so long it is a layer of black charcoal on the center of the pathway and a bearly recognizable white floor on the sides.
    There are no vents anywhere, it is an old lab, outdated and messy. I feel dizzy or lightheaded at least twice a day and the office where I can escape to is inside the lab where I also have my lunch. I got the job because I am fresh from college and the pay is good, I have done what I can in a week but I am heavily considering to quit... I dont know what to do.

    ReplyDelete