Late last year I blogged about the new health and safety rule handed down on high from the research council that funds our institute: all staff must wear safety glasses at all times while in the laboratory – regardless of what they are doing. I won’t rehash my objections here, except to summarize that about 95% of what I do involves transferring non-toxic liquids from one tube to another, and when I do perform something hazardous, like poking around a liquid nitrogen tank or dealing with concentrated sulphuric acid, I wear the appropriate safety gear.
I’ve worked in a number of labs the world over, and I’ve never encountered such a draconian eyewear policy. What, I wondered, could be its impetus? One of my fearless and intrepid colleagues, Ian the Microscope Guy, dug a little deeper and found out:
I looked up the research council’s policy and it explained that there were 12 injuries in 2009 relating to the eye. The breakdown is as follows:
7 Chemical splashes
1 Chemical vapour (formaldehyde)
1 liquid nitrogen
Then it gets a bit silly….
1 Ice from freezer
1 plastic fragment (freezer tray)
Then it gets REALLY silly…
Now, every lab in our building was forced to spend an inordinate amount of time writing up detailed risk assessments for every conceivable manipulation we do in the lab, including what safety gear is required (although handwashing with soap, I’m afraid to say, is not on our lab’s list). And we are all charged by regulations to be familiar with these procedures. It has not escaped my notice that the first nine, non-silly items on the list would have been prevented if people had simply been following the pre-existing rules about wearing goggles at the appropriate time. Actually, make that eight: strictly speaking, glasses would not prevent formaldehyde vapor from contacting the eye, so that person should have been working in a fume hood – another requirement clearly indicated in the risk assessments that seems to have been flouted.
So will the new rules lead to a reduction in eye injuries? I’m not convinced: risk assessments covering the scenarios that led to these injuries already dictated that care should be taken (either by the manipulators themselves, or nearby bystanders), and it clearly wasn’t – so wouldn’t these sorts be just as likely to disregard a more wide-sweeping rule? Meanwhile, what sort of havoc could be caused by perpetually restricted peripheral vision?
One of the most astonishing things about the policy is that the funding body, in order to implement its rule, had to pay for prescription safety specs for every single bespectacled researcher working in one of its funded institutes – I don’t know the numbers, but I can imagine there must be many hundreds of us. In these times of drastic cutbacks, I really shudder to imagine the final bill, and how many antibodies and enzymes we could have bought with that cash instead.
But there’s no use complaining about it now; the rule has kicked in. This past Friday, after putting it off as long as humanly possible, my benchmate Helen and I trundled down to High Holborn to order our special specs. We were optimistic – surely these days, the design of such items must have become more fashionable. Maybe we would actually be pleasantly surprised.
But our hearts sank when the clerk pulled out the box of samples, about a dozen models in all and each of them utterly hideous. Matters got worse when it became clear that most of the models were off-limits to people as myopic as me (R:-13.00/-0.75×2°; L:-11.00/-1.00×5°, since you ask) or my colleague (slightly less bad but still over the limit). Matters got a bit more worse when the clerk warned us the lenses might be an inch thick for people like us. When I finally had chosen the least hideous of the two possible pairs on offer, I was then informed that as my prescription was more than a year old, I’d need to be retested.
Dear reader, I lost my temper. For starters, I can assure you that anyone with a prescription of R:-13.00/-0.75×2°; L:-11.00/-1.00×5° is never going to get a decent assessment from a high street optician. After about two decades of being unable to see and not knowing why, I’d finally sucked it in and paid £300/hour to a Harley Street consultant ophthalmic surgeon with a posh accent and a natty bow-tie who, after two sessions, was finally able to prescribe glasses through which I can actually see. I was not about to spend the research council’s hard-earned, taxpayer’s cash on safety specs that I couldn’t focus through, and I certainly wasn’t going to go back to Harley Street until I felt I needed a change. It didn’t matter how hard I tried to convince the clerk that my current glasses prescription gives me 20/20 vision. The bottom line was that it’s against the optician’s health and safety regulations to fill spectacle prescriptions more than twelve months old – no matter what the customer wants. The final scores? That’s Lab Health and Safety 1, Optician Health and Safety 1, Jenny, nil.
So if you ever visit my lab in the afternoons, which is when I usually have to remove my contact lenses out of fatigue, I’ll be the one with the glasses over glasses, messing up my experiments because every time I look down, the outer safely specs slip off my nose and fall all over my rack, splashing solutions everywhere.
But don’t worry about my skin – I’ll be wearing the white coat.