The graduate student came running into the lab.
“The centrifuge is on fire!”
We’re talking quite a while ago now. The centrifuge, an old bench-top Heraeus, was a clunky old blue thing, top speed of about 5,000 rpm according to the book (a bit faster if it was in a good mood) but, and this is why we loved it so much, refrigerated. This meant we could load our protein samples in Centricons, set it spinning and piss off down the pub, returning six hours later to take the concentrated sample and set up a fresh load of crystallization trays.
I can’t even remember the centrifuge model, although I do recall we found one particular German post-doc’s pronunciation of it hilarious. The things that take up the old memory neurons, eh?
Anyway, there we were, one sunny Friday morning, with a centrifuge on fire. Never one to run away from danger (don’t ask me why. It must be genetic) I pushed past the wide-eyed grad student and dashed into the bug room. This was across the corridor from our lab, and contained two shaking incubators, a big old Beckman that we used for spinning down bug pellets, a microwave for some reason, and about three miles of shelving, upon which sat dozens and dozens of 2.5 litre flasks containing different media formulations.
Sure enough, smoke was billowing out of the back of the Heraeus. I nipped back into the corridor, grabbed a CO2 extinguisher from the bracket on the wall, back into the bug room—turned the electricity off at the wall—discharged the extinguisher into the grille at the rear of the centrifuge. I may, remembering the fire training we’d had a couple of weeks previously, even have warned the grad student that the horn-shaped nozzle got very cold so we should take care not to touch it.
All before the smoke alarm went off, too. Score, I thought.
I rang the workshop, and told them we had a dead centrifuge—and then rang admin and told them we needed a fire extinguisher recharging.
That’s when the fun began, of course.
Health and Safety sent round a droid, dressed in a lab coat, natch, and a whole binder full of paperwork. I had an half hour interview and had to fill in the paperwork—all because I had discharged a fire extinguisher. It was full of questions such as “Why was the extinguisher discharged?” and “What alternative action could have been taken?” I thought one extinguisher recharge was a small price to pay in order to stop the lab burning down. Not according to these muppets: I seriously think they would have been happier if I hadn’t.
But then, this was the same H&S department that sealed the first aid kits in the corridors with cable ties. Because, when you’ve slit a vein in some freak accident involving a microtome, six quarts of hexane and a GFP-labelled zebrafish, you want to run madly around the labs and offices in search of a pair of scissors so you can get hold of a wound dressing.
And this, my friends, is why Health and Safety in labs has gone too far. These policies not only actually cause accidents, but also degrade respect for authority, especially Health and Safety administrators (those who make these rules, by the way, usually haven’t been within 50 billion Ångstroms of an operating laboratory in their life). Which in turn means that people get pissed off and fed up, and start ignoring rules, even the sensible ones. Unthinking blanket application of rules makes people disrespect the rule-maker, with consequences that are easily foreseeable. And yet it still happens.
Where did it all go wrong?