The challenges of working in a lab
Accidents in the lab are often unavoidable, but if you exercise attention to detail and thoroughness, you contribute to the excellent reputation of your lab and your research integrity. Lab managers should exercise standard procedures for cleaning, clothing and personal protective equipment (PPE) and should comply with all regulations and legislations.
Cross-contamination is normally the outcome of trivial incidents of carelessness or oversight, or conversely, unavoidable mishaps. Nevertheless, without careful attention to the task, it is surprisingly easy to unintentionally combine an alien substance/s with a specimen or accidentally soil an otherwise sterile substance. Oversight can result in the loss of thousands of dollars’ worth of research, alteration of results and can overall change lives for the worse. Yes, it’s serious business. Avoid these common mistakes to avoid cross-contamination:
- Using unsterile water.
- Poor air quality or ventilation.
- Letting in air pollutants like smoke or exhaust — this can cause the result to be compromised.
- Not using a new set of gloves for the task at hand — a tiny sample falling off your used glove into a testing substance will not work out for you.
Quality assurance can prove tedious and taxing, but can be approached in every situation with the famous PDCA cycle (plan, do, check, act) — an excellent methodical approach to achieving quality. However, the lab is a setting wherein there is a complex system which presents obstacles in terms of simplicity in the QC and QA processes. For example, if a client requests a simple percentage and is given a PPM (parts-per-million) measurement, they may receive unanticipated and unwanted costs, or an irrelevant answer. Conversely, if a customer needs a PPB (parts-per-billion) measurement and is given a PPM measurement, it can waste time and require higher costs to the lab. The lab should therefore conduct research into quality systems and invest in systems and roles that can assist in keeping the reliability and effectiveness of the lab.
Expensive lab equipment is also a complaint of many laboratory workers. Indeed, equipment will always ultimately be expensive, especially for specialist labs and clinical laboratories. Equipment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and require thousands of dollars of maintenance, upkeep and running.
Lab safety is heavily regulated. Here are a few fundamentals you must have:
- An eyewash station
- Appropriate signage
- Fire provisions (extinguisher, blanket, smoke alarms, etc)
- Dangerous goods/hazardous materials labelling
- Dangerous goods cabinets
- Appropriate hardware (tap handles, gas connections, ventilation, sink specifications, etc)
- PPE (personal protective equipment)
That said, there is a lot to go through and it is essential that regulations — and conformity to said regulations — are documented and clearly rehearsed. There are three clear classes to the safety requirements that should be borne in mind: physical, biological and chemical safety. Probably the most important safety aspect is covered, however, by common sense. The world of WHS practices is a huge one, and only intensified in the laboratory. It should not be considered a challenge, however, but an opportunity that makes the laboratory an effective workplace. It is a protocol that not only protects you from hazard and harm, but also ensures high quality standards.
Avoid lab bloopers!
- Eyewash stations should be flushed weekly, tagged and documented — just like a fire extinguisher. This makes sure you have the assurance you are not going to further hurt your eyes if you do need to use the eyewash station and makes sure it actually works. It might save your eyesight and, indeed, your career.
- Clearly label chemicals/containers and maintain the labels. Replace old, deteriorated labels. You don’t want to muddle up your research with something as trivial as this.
- Indeed, clearly label chemical waste. Make sure this also is maintained, and that the waste tag remains on the container at all times.
- Segregate chemicals properly according to classification. Use chemical cabinets with the appropriate labelling to store whichever dangerous goods you possess.
- Keep your chemical waste containers closed.
- Wear appropriate PPE in the lab: no open-toed shoes or shorts when in the presence of hazardous materials.
- Have appropriate spill supplies ready for any incidents.
Working in the lab is very challenging, as you can see. What is important is to embrace the challenges, see them as opportunities and make every effort to make the lab the best place to work. You will love every minute of it.
Originally published here.
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