I would like to say, straight off, that I am very, very careful about Health and Safety in the laboratory. There is probably no greater evangelist for proper laboratory practise than yours truly, an attitude I had adopted long before what we now call the ‘Ruthenium Tetroxide Incident’.
Also, with the increased sophistication of so much laboratory equipment, with smaller amounts of reagents being used and precision automation, there is, quite frankly, usually little excuse. I go spare if I see somebody doing something on the bench that should be carried out in a fume cupboard.
However – and here I must just interject to say that I have always been a huge fan of the concept of Orwellian ‘doublethink’ – I do despair intensely of Health and Safety Departments.
This prejudice was installed in me at an early age, doing vacation jobs as an undergraduate. First day of any new job, in any reasonably sized organisation and it was time for the Health and Safety Talk. A chance to be patronised by people, who, I soon realised, had never actually done the jobs they were talking about.
Obviously, because these were pretty terrible jobs to be carried out mainly by students and ex-convicts, you could not blame them. Still, it was an easy day and so what if they did take themselves ever so, ever so seriously, everybody actually should know how to lift something correctly. The slide show was a hoot though, especially when one time the Health and Safety guy showed us all the slide of a ‘bad’ fire door. Like anybody was going to be stupid enough to stack boxes in front of a fire door, but I guess these things happen. Ah, here’s the slide of a ‘good’ fire door, nicely labelled and clear, except…
“Excuse me, I think you will find that ‘good’ fire door opens inwards and these were banned under the 1969 Health and Safety at Work legislation.”
The advantages of rooming with a ‘architecture’ student. I was right as well.
I thought it would all be different when I was actually working in the scientific world for real. Alas no, first day, here comes the same Health and Safety people, or their clones, with their box of slides and instructions for how to lift something. Yes, we all should know how to lift something. Every place I went to work I sat through the same old talk.
However, laboratories are very specialised places and not all Universities and venerable institutes are built to modern specifications and you have to live in the real world as well. So, finally, first day at one particularly esteemed college I sort of snapped as the Health and Safety Man gave instructions for how to sit comfortably and safely at your computer: have your feet flat on the floor …
“Excuse me, what do you do when your computer is on a bench?”
Put the computer on a desk.
“But there are no desks, on account of the laboratory having been built in 1896.”
I’ll get back to you on that one.
“Excuse me, what’s the best way of pulling a compressed air cylinder up the stairs?”
You do not pull a compressed air cylinder up the stairs! You use the lift!
“But there is no lift, on account of the laboratory having been built in 1896.”
OK. I’ll get back to you on that one as well.
I think I made an enemy for life that particular morning. The Health and Safety Man did not like me at all. I was not just being pig-headed though – oh maybe a bit. The point is that we do have to be a bit pragmatic with regards to Health and Safety as well. Obviously we always follow ‘good practise’ and do not take unnecessary risks and if there is something amiss that can be addressed we find a way of addressing it. We minimise risks wherever possible, while realising that life is inherently a risky business and sometimes you just have to use a pinch of pragmatism and common sense.
And on that one particular morning, as we broke for lunch the Health and Safety Man started to move the desks around for the afternoon slide show. He bent right over one desk and picked it straight up – no bending his knees or asking for assistance!
He must have heard me ‘tutting’ all the way to the cafeteria.