On health and safety gorn mad

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.
Some burk with long hair breaking sensible H&S regs
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?

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
This entry was posted in The stupid, it burns, wank and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to On health and safety gorn mad

  1. I actually have an answer to your final question, based on evolutionary theory – see http://deevybee.blogspot.com/
    Basically it boils down to the fact that occasional rare catastrophes lead to massive spawning of regulators, who have few predators, and who then reproduce at an alarming rate. All maintained by human tendency to focus on emotional aspects of catastrophe while ignoring probability. Inverse of the process that causes people to buy lottery tickets (ie focus on amazing reward while ignoring probability).
    Scientists do have to fight back: our habitat is threatened by these creatures.

  2. rpg says:

    Wow. That’s a brilliant insight, there. I’d always seen such types—administrative regulators—as parasites, but viewing them as top predator is a new one to me. I’ll read your post once I have a bit of time to do it justice.

  3. David Smith says:

    It was getting bad in the U.S. even back in the ’80’s. One of the signs that tipped me off earlier were the Cautions on the dextrose, etc. When I finally left to become a software developer, I had lost a lot of joy of research due to the invasiveness of some of the rules.

    Dorothy Bishop’s post is good.

    I see that you, yourself have bought into this somewhat — Your captcha is difficult for me to read. Is your “safety” worth my effort?

  4. rpg says:

    Believe it, bud 😀

  5. ricardipus says:

    David’s post reminds me that I was amazed to discover recently that WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information Service or whatever it is) labels are, in fact *not* required on certain non-hazardous items. When I was in the lab, lo these many moons ago, *everything* was supposed to be labeled. Including, and I kid you not at all, the box of Carnation brand instant skim milk powder. Perfectly safe in your kitchen, hazardous as all hell in the lab.

    Also, I just saw a CAPTCHA phrase including two instances of “capital letter A squared” separated by what looked like an X inside a circle. How the heck am I supposed to type *that*?

  6. rpg says:

    Hmm. If captcha is proving problematic, I can try turning it down a little?

  7. Can’t we disable Captcha for trusted users who passed their first moderation? And as a guest blogger on OT, why is ricardipus getting the Captcha at all? I don’t get asked. (Or is that because I’m a Supreme Being on the site?)

  8. rpg says:

    Registered and logged-in users don’t get asked for a captcha. At least, they shouldn’t.

  9. antipodean says:

    I just got volunteered onto the OHS committee. I have to do a four day training course now…

    oddest text recog i’ve seen: Milosevic gettra

  10. rpg says:

    Hey, antipodean: tell us about the training course! I’m sure there’s tales of madness in there.

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