Note to Science Students: Danger Ain’t Cool

There’s a reason you’re told to wear safety goggles at all times:

Tomi J. Adeyemi ’15 was at Eleganza’s date auction at Cambridge Queen’s Head at 8:40 p.m. on Tuesday night when her eyes started to turn red.

“I thought, ‘Okay, this will fade,’” she recalls.

At the time, she figured she was just tired, or at worst, that she had pink eye. She decided that if she woke up the next morning with “crusty” eyes, she would go to CVS to buy some eye drops.

But at 1 a.m., after she had returned to her suite in Grays Hall to go to sleep, her eyes started hurting.

“I thought, ‘Pink eye doesn’t hurt like this. Something’s wrong.’”

By 4 a.m., experiencing “unbearable” pain and “blurry” vision, Adeyemi and her roommate rushed to Harvard University Hospital Services urgent care…

When Adeyemi and Cheng walked into Urgent Care at 4:15 a.m., the nurses at the front desk appeared to know why Adeyemi had come and asked if she had been in Life and Physical Sciences A: “Foundational Chemistry and Biology” lab that afternoon. She told them yes. The nurses told her that “this had happened to a lot of kids” and that “it had been happening all night.”

Adeyemi was one of about five students who were exposed to ultraviolet light in LPSA lab on Tuesday while not using the proper eye protection. As a result, they suffered from what Adeyemi was told may have been “thermal retinal burn from UV radiation,” a condition that includes symptoms of eye redness, pain, and blurry vision.

Put the lid down when staring at the transilluminator:

The transilluminator emits UV light, but the printed instructions for the lab made no mention of the need to use safety goggles or to view the gel through a clear protective screen. It is unclear whether verbal instructions regarding safety procedures were issued to the students…

“As soon as you walk in, it’s the rule that you have to put on goggles,” Julia B. Hyman ’15 says.

But that afternoon, three days before the end of fall semester classes, Adeyemi says that “everyone was in a lazy kind of mood.”

“It was last-lab fever,” Hyman adds.

“In my mind, I was like, ‘oh, we’re not working with fire or chemicals, so it should be okay.’” Adeyemi recalls.

But while Cheng and Hyman say that the transilluminator that they were working had the protective screen pressed down on the sample, Adeyemi says that in some stations in her section, the protective screen was not always pushed down.

As a result, she and several other students without goggles gazed at their samples with no barrier to block the ultraviolet light emanating from the transilluminator.

Even smart people can be very stupid…

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5 Responses to Note to Science Students: Danger Ain’t Cool

  1. dr2chase says:

    See also:

    “Funny story that. Every time I tell an MIT student that the UV LEDs will permanently blind them if they remove the cover, the response is the same. First, they say “Really?”, and then they attempt to look into the endcap. True story. Explains a lot, I think.”

  2. It’s natural to look to blame the victims – someone was lazy or complacent or stupid or forgetful, and they got hurt. That it happens in a university lab shows a problem with developing and maintaining a ‘safety culture’, Surely there’s a university employee who’s nominally in charge of the lab and responsible for making sure the students understand the risks & the proper use of protective equipment, be it a TA, professor, or staff member. It also sounds like the equipment vendor didn’t do enough to clearly inform users of the risks posed by their equipment. Some responsibility must fall on the institution and vendor.

    My point is not as simplistic & self-righteous as “don’t blame the victim”; by thinking of the injured students as ‘stupid’, we may keep ourselves from reflecting on our own lab practice and fail to realize that this could easily happen to us. We are not as smart or disciplined as we think we are. Admitting our own fallibility, we may pay more attention to our own safety; realizing safety is a shared responsibility helps us pay attention to the practices of others. The goal of building a safety culture is to make everyone aware of risks and give them permission to call out unsafe conditions wherever they see them with the goal of keeping everyone healthy & happy.

    These kids are lucky they only suffered “welder’s flash”: it could have been a lot worse. While this link talks about serious hazards to chemical researchers, the findings and conclusions are relevant to building a safety culture in any lab environment.

    Thanks for posting this; it’s a good lesson in lab safety. Hopefully I haven’t been too much of a douchebag by pointing out the upstream responsibility for lab safety.

  3. Newcastle says:

    I’ve been cloning DNA for 30 years now and transilluminator sunburns not an uncommon event. They were especially common back in the day of the CsCl gradient plasmid prep. It is the folks who get burned more than once, some almost routinely, that you really wonder about.

  4. Nomen Nescio says:

    “do not look into laser with remaining good eye”. or as Pratchett put it, if someone installed a big red button in the bottom of a deep, forgotten cave somewhere with a warning sign reading “this button ends the world and brings on the apocalypse, DO NOT PUSH” the paint wouldn’t have time to dry.

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