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Physics Lab Safety Rules

  1. Nov 14, 2017 #1
    Hi educators,

    This may sound dumb, but my physics lecture room is our lab as well and we spend long hours in class. We spend approximately 4 hours for lecture and other activities and 2 hours for labs. Currently, I have a strict rule that only drink is allowed during lecture and other classroom activities and no food/drink allowed during lab sessions. So the question was raised by the college leadership that since this is a 'lab' room, no food/drink should be allowed even if it is a class-time. Your thoughts? Also, could you point to any lab safety instructions put out by prominent physics organizations such as American Physical Society or American Association of Physics Teachers? I have seen such instructions for chemistry labs. Thanks for any input.

  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 14, 2017 #2


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    ... and, your objection is what? You should be allowed to poison yourself AND sue the college?
  4. Nov 14, 2017 #3


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    What other institutions or organizations think or recommend is completely irrelevant. It is what policy YOUR institution decides to implement. If the school's official policy is no food or drink in your classroom, then that's that. The only way for you to change this is for you to argue on why your school's policy should be changed or why your situation should be the exception. But until you have that change or exception being made official by the school, you will be in violation of its rules if you go against it.

    I used to work at a US National Lab, and our safety policy and limits are even stricter than OSHA rules. It doesn't matter if what I do is within OSHA's standards (or any other standards, even another National Lab). If it is not within the lab's standards, than I'm in violation of the rules. Period!

  5. Nov 14, 2017 #4


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    The possible way to change anything is to recommend a scheduling change (long enough rest or break period) so that students have the chance to find a drink of water, use the restroom and then get back to class or lab).
  6. Nov 15, 2017 #5
    There are better hills to die on. There are always stupid rules and there will always be stupid rules. Finding "work arounds" is usually a more productive and efficient path than winning against bureaucracies. Most classes I've had that ran past 90 minutes had a 5 minute break to allow for various personal needs. In my labs (2-3 hours), students could come and go as they pleased to attend to personal needs. I'd address the issue with allowances to leave class for personal needs rather than engage in a wrestling match over eating and drinking in class.

    Given the nature of my physics labs (non-toxic) I tend to view the rules I've had about eating and drinking as more of a consideration for the electronic equipment and lab cleanliness than student safety. But since students don't often differentiate between good lab practices in physics and good lab practices in chemistry and biology, I can also see how a more complete ban on food and drink in lab settings builds good habits for the other departments.
  7. Nov 16, 2017 #6

    Andy Resnick

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    Our institution started seriously enforcing the 'no food or drinks' rule in labs a couple of years ago, which was good. Yes, there were unexpected results- we used to hold student seminars in a lab because of the room layout, but we had to move since we also provided pizza lunches.

    It's a 'best practices' issue.

    As for safety guidelines, a quick search yielded the following:

    https://www.aapt.org/Resources/upload/TYCGuidelines-PDF.pdf (L5, L6)
  8. Dec 3, 2017 #7
    I came to Academia after 30 years in engineering industry. During that time I implemented rigorous safety policies at two different companies. In one company we had the highest injury incidence rate in the entire 30K employee company, the entire planet. We were told to fix it, or they'll chain the doors closed. That put us on a trajectory of implementing a very rigorous program which resulted in a zero injury incidence rate in 18 months.

    Now in academia, I am engaged in an on-going battle with my colleagues about such things. None of these ignorant folks have ever had friends or colleagues injured / maimed / killed on the job like I have. So they generally think my guidelines are unreasonable, if not stupid. I had one brilliant-but-utterly-stupid Ph.D. tell me that "Academia is not like Industry, so theses rules don't apply." Idiot. We're dealing with untrained, inexperienced, and ignorant young people so the rules should be even more rigorous. Just two weeks ago we had a female student running a knee mill with her long hair down. The idiot lab manager vehemently denied it was a problem. I called a Near Miss Incident and the Department Chair publicly declared it was not a Near Miss. You know what they say: Ignorance can be fixed, but Stupid is forever.

    Regarding food / not food: This is a hygiene hazard and a distraction hazard. Besides the annoyance of gooey fingerprints on lab items and keyboards, transmission of disease and so forth, most labs will have particulates and residues on surfaces that should not be ingested. Distracted students should not be running lab activities with any type of potential energy or movement while holding a soft drink cup or gobbling up a snack bar. This silliness would never be tolerates at most companies for whom I have worked. I don't tolerate it in my labs nor my classrooms. Yeah, I'm a jerk about it.

    And, for me, the overriding philosophy is: industry won't tolerate this silly nonsense, so the students should be trained in rigorous safety policies before they walk out the door with their diploma.
  9. Dec 3, 2017 #8


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    Good job. I'm curious what kind of industry/lab was this (if you can say).
    Yikes, good call.
  10. Dec 3, 2017 #9

    Vanadium 50

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    2017 Award

    Karen Watterhahn, Dartmouth, died 1997
    Sheri Sangii, UCLA, died 2008
    Preston Brown, Texas Tech, maimed 2010
    Michelle Dufault, Yale, died 2011
    Meng Xiangjian, Tsinghua, died 2014
    Thea Ekins-Coward, Hawaii, maimed 2016

    I'd like you to ask your department head if he thinks the problem is that this list isn't long enough.
  11. Dec 3, 2017 #10
    My experience has been that DoD labs, big company industry labs, and academic labs are saddled with lots of rules and regulations that tend to assume everyone is an untrained idiot and that rules need to expect the greatest lack of care possible on the part of the humans. Rules and regulations cannot fix stupid.

    My experience has also been that my small private lab can accomplish most things at around 10-20% of the cost (80-90%) savings compared with government, industry, and academic labs because of the labor and overhead associated with all those rules and regulations. My colleagues also have often been amazed at my productivity in terms of projects and papers completed in a given year mostly because our small private lab avoids most of those bureaucratic regulations and overhead. It's not just burdensome safety regulations, sometimes it is extra environmental compliance issues, sometimes insurance (Obamacare), sometimes misinterpretation of animal welfare laws, etc. Crafting a path to productivity while working around foolish bureaucratic molasses is a key to efficient productivity.
  12. Dec 3, 2017 #11


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    How long ago was this?

    After the accident at UCLA's Chemistry lab that took the life of a graduate student back in 2008, one would think that no university will have that attitude anymore. In fact, if there is a whistleblower protection (and I don't see why there shouldn't be) at your school, you should have reported such a thing. I would even make sure that there is a paper trail evidence that you have reported such a thing, because if anything happens later on, you at least had evidence that you reported your concern.

    At all US National Labs, every employee has been trained with the "Stop Work" training in which an employee has the ability to issue a Stop Work immediately on ANY activity within the lab that he/she deemed to be dangerous and not within the safety procedure. It is part of the orientation that everyone working at the lab has to go through.

    You need to figure out the safety policy at your school (it should be made available to everyone), and see if your attempt at a Stop Work has been sufficiently addressed within the school's official policy. I bet that those in your dept. appear to not be aware of the existence of such a policy.

  13. Dec 17, 2017 #12
    I've had to wrap up the semester and grade/post finals, now I can get back to answering questions. I appreciate the mostly positive feedback from the community here. My small university is a relatively young school. Like most young organizations, the Administration is learning how to grow out of the amateurish reactionary policy making mode into a more rigorous but bureaucratized policy making mode.

    Thank you, kind of you to say so. I was part of the Management Team who worked on this. I have to admit, we had the absolute luxury of having 100% commitment from our General Site Manager, who was made directly & personally responsible for any injury incident. If an act or condition was hazardous and unsafe, he stopped all work and gave everyone the authority to fix it. I fought it tooth & nail at first because like Courtney alluded to, I thought it was burdensome bureaucratic silliness. It was a lot of work to build & deploy the work instructions, job safety analyses, extensive training, and all the documents that go into this effort. Productivity decreased. Initially. But at the end productivity returned to higher levels, all employees were constantly aware of hazards, and the adaptations made to the work effort to accommodate the safety policy became automatic. Everyone felt as I did: it was now a joy to come to work because I felt very comfortable and did not fear that I may get injured during the course of the day.

    The division in which I worked was a research division of a large chemical/materials corporation. It's purpose was to develop new commercial manufacturing processes to enable creation of a new market into which they could sell their commodity engineering plastic. Interesting work, small organization, originally started a decade+ prior with a whole bunch of highly paid scientists and reports that they had burned through $15 Million per year. By the time I arrived, most of the patents had been issued and they were downscaling...I had missed the gravy train. During my tenure there the division was only about 20 employees.

    Alas, this political situation at this university and department is such that there is an aggressive campaign to deny any problems exist and to squelch any off-the-script comments that don't fit the "all is perfect, everybody is happy" narrative. Totally illogical, and I can only guess that there are dollar issues and political issues that make this so. The Department Chair and the College Dean are not transparent. We are certainly not a happy ship here.

    This specific incident was this past Fall 2017 semester. I had a similar long-hair at a drill press incident in the Spring 2017 semester. THAT one sent chills down my spine because that girl was only a few seconds away from a bad day before I was able to intercept it. Again, this occurred just a few feet from the same Lab Manager.

    We theoretically have whistleblower protection, but...I'd be ostracized and discriminated against for sure in subtle, untraceable ways. Same for the more formal OSHA regs: I teach an Industrial Safety course and know. Even though retaliation is strictly illegal, we all know it would happen if the organization is dysfunctional. I have tried to use the university's Safety, Health, & Environmental Manager as an ally and he refuses to engage in this issue. He deflects and tells me work it out.

    After multiple conversations his advice (really...not making this up) was to keep logs of incidents, phone calls, & emails to be able to protect myself when the major catastrophic event does finally occur. Well, I've got enough stuff to throw several adminstrative levels under the bus when it occurs, but I know I won't survive it either. But it kills me to know this is my only option at this time. So I'm trying to my best to keep pushing for rigorous safety.

    I've even recruited two companies from our Advisory Board to visit our facility and do a no-legal-obligation Site Safety Assessment. The Department Chair vetoed that action and stated we will not use any outside or 3rd-party advisors.

    We have an "operations policy" that does not provide any details about establishing a rigorous safety behavior model. Department Chair publicly claims it is a very rigorous safety policy and everything's just fine. This existing "policy" is generally useless.
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