Whenever I hear about lab accidents it makes me feel a little nauseous. This is because I have several inches of permanent scar tissue on my arm and a smaller scar on my face to remind me how chemical burns can have a lasting impact. I don’t think about it most of the time until someone I am talking to or waiting in the elevator with fixates on my arm and then turns away like they weren’t looking.
It happened one night some years ago when I was a third year grad student. I needed to do a deprotination to make an alpha hydroperoxy. I had flushed out the system using Argon. I had carefully set up the drop-wise addition of a pyrophoric compound via cannulation. All at once, a bright flash, loud sound and extreme pressure and heat invaded my senses. I remember being stunned and gazing into the glass hood where I could see the hair near my forehead was on fire. I ran to the shower—like I had seen in too many lab class introduction videos as a T.A.—stripped off my lab coat and shirt, and pulled on the shower knob. I saw some of the skin was peeling off my left arm. A postdoc in the next door lab gave me his jacket, helped me over to his car and proceeded to drive me to the hospital emergency room. Another postdoc helped clean up the water on the floor (thank you kind postdocs!). The drive to the emergency room only took minutes but felt like an eternity. I kept asking the postdoc driving the car if my face was ‘real bad.’ I knew my arm was scarred but I was more worried I had permanently scarred my face. At the hospital I was treated for second and third degree burns to my arm and my graduate adviser arrived. Luckily there were mostly only first degree burns on my face but I did look like I had a severe case of acne for a while. (Nothing is quite the same kind of awkward as sitting with your very distinguished adviser in the middle of the night with burns over your arm and face while dressed in a hospital gown in the emergency room.)
WHY ANY OF THIS MATTERS
You might wonder if and how I was irresponsible that night of the accident, what I could have done to prevent it, or what I could have done differently. All I know for certain is that my view on the importance of safety training in academia has changed greatly since then. After the accident, I no longer see any part of lab safety training as just a theoretical discussion or mandatory obligation.
When in the lab, there is so much at stake. We have not only our immediate safety to think about (avoiding fires, spills, etc.), but also potential repercussions to our future-permanent scars, cancers, reproductive systems, etc. It is so important to take advantage of the safety resources we have.
Side note: Other than my dissertation, my most prized possession that I took from the lab is an old pair of safety goggles I wore that night. It has a big white splotch where there was back-splash from the explosion just over the lens that was protecting my right eye.
Do you have a “near miss” story you want to share? Leave it below.