Research

Stricter lab rules

Sulphuric acid and shaking hands

Over the past few years, overcrowding has led to an increase in accidents in Zernike’s teaching laboratories. These, in turn, have led to improved safety measures. Now all needles are blunt, and no one is allowed to wear ankle socks. ‘Imagine sulphuric acid spilling all over your exposed ankles.’
By Freek Schueler / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Photos by Reyer Boxem

Deep in the recesses of the Nijenborgh building, students in lab coats and protective glasses focus on chemicals swilling around in glass containers. Most of the students are chemistry students, but you’ll also find the odd pharmacy or life science and technology students in these labs. The lab rules posted on every door (NO GLASSES, NO ACCESS!!) clearly show that safety is a priority. But how safe are these labs, really?

Accidents happen. Someone turns around just as a fellow student passes behind; he drops a glass beaker, which shatters to pieces as it hits the ground. If the substance in the beaker is water, no harm done. But what if the substance in the beaker is toxic? Everyone who works in a lab needs to know how to respond to accidents, from broken glassware to trash bin fires.

Overcrowded

Niek Eisink (28) became a lecturer of chemistry and chemical technology last year. He oversees the safety procedures in all twelve laboratories at Zernike. In recent years, the labs are always overcrowded. So, there are more accidents. The increase in accidents has led to stricter safety rules.

Jeans with holes in them? Rolled-up trouser legs and ankle socks? No way

‘At the start of the year, all students receive safety training concerning fire safety and how to work with nitrogen’, says Eisink. ‘In addition, before each organic chemistry practical we provide a mandatory introduction that repeats these safety instructions.’

Students have to know which chemicals they are working with, what kind of clothing they’re allowed to wear, and especially, how they should behave. Eisink: ‘Those fashionable jeans with holes in them? Absolutely forbidden. Rolled-up trouser legs and ankle socks? No way.’

If your clothes don’t meet the safety requirements, you will immediately be sent home. ‘They are measures to counteract accidents that may not happen on a daily basis. But imagine dropping a beaker full of sulphuric acid and it spilling all over your exposed ankles.’

Hydrogen cyanide

Eisink is adamant that people learn the rules; he wants adherence to safety measures to become routine. ‘I regularly come across open jars of chemicals, because students are too busy to put the lid back on.’ They aren’t intentionally careless, but they have to understand the potential danger in being sloppy.

You might wonder: is it really necessary for students to work with these dangerous substances? One of the most dangerous substances second-year students use is sodium cyanide. If you mix sodium cyanide with acid, it forms hydrogen cyanide – which can be deadly. Eisink: ‘Sodium cyanide is a standard chemical used in an organic laboratory, so we want students to learn how to use it. The first time I had to use it my hands were shaking. You just have to get used to it.’

Sharp needles

One example of change over the past year involves new rules about the use of needles. ‘Some chemicals shouldn’t be exposed to the air, so we keep them in vials with nitrogen and a rubber stopper. Students use the needle to puncture the stopper, get what they need from the chemical, and add it to their reaction.’ The problem is that these needles are long and sharp, which means it’s easy to prick yourself with them. ‘Some students try to put the protective cap back on and miss.’ Every week, some student managed to stick a needle in a finger or two.

Eisink presses his index finger against his thumb. ‘There was one student who stuck the needle straight through both her thumb and index finger. I still don’t know how she managed it.’

The solution to this particular problem was as simple as it was efficient: the labs now only contain blunt needles, which transport chemicals just as well. Now students must request sharp needles from the lab assistants.

Taboo

Each laboratory has two assistants. In the past, there were only three assistants for every two labs. There is also a health and safety officer available at all times. Should the officer not be able to respond immediately, people can call the emergency number: 8050. Eisink: ‘It’s very important that there’s no taboo about calling the emergency number. I’d rather they call it too often than fail to call when it’s truly necessary.’

There is one rule the students all dislike thoroughly: they have to be physically present from 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. ‘When they’re done they can work on reports, but they always have to sign back in. That’s because when we do have to evacuate, we need to know where everyone is.’

Experienced students are tasked with redoing the experiments and updating the manuals

Lab assistant Marieke Veenstra (23) has a chemistry degree and has witnessed many of the security measures improve over the past few years. ‘It wasn’t entirely uncommon for trash bins to be on fire. The flames could get pretty high.’ Thanks to a different system of waste disposal to prevent the wrong chemicals from being thrown away together, there aren’t any more garbage fires.

Emergency number

Jelmer Coenrady (22) hasn’t seen anything quite as crazy as a flaming dumpster. He’s doing a bachelor in biology, which means he frequents a different type of laboratory. The biggest difference is that biology labs don’t usually have fume cupboards. ‘That was a bit scary at first, but if you’re careful it’s fine. The worst that can happen is broken glassware, but we know what to do. And if we don’t, we’ll immediately ask the lab assistant or call the emergency number.’

There are still a few things that need improvement, according to Eisink. For example, the practical manuals are outdated. ‘They say that chemicals should be poured down the drain, which is the absolute worst thing to do in a chemistry lab.’ Eisink has tasked experienced students with redoing the experiments and updating the manuals. He also wants more intensive training for student assistants, including an extra day of courses about safety precautions and possibly dangerous situations.

Experimenting in the hood

Nederlands

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