Saturday, January 29, 2011

On the Subject of Safety

One of the things I do as the senior member of the lab, in addition to my clean-up afternoon decrees, is deal with all safety issues. (Don't worry, there's only three of us in my lab, so that keeps me from getting too carried away with power...) I'm the official Safety Representative, so I have to make sure we have all chemicals in proper storage, all equipment maintained to code (hello fume hood inspections), and all members of the lab are current on their safety training. I try to keep things like this from happening. :)

I actually was required to go through some training to be the safety rep - it took an entire afternoon of sitting through presentations. Yech. Important stuff, I know, but BORING.

I also have to report the status of the lab's hazards every year to the central safety office, and turn in an annual chemical report so the government can keep track of what nasty things are where. Fortunately, I'm in a mechanical lab, so the chemical hazards are nearly nonexistent. Acetone, anyone? Isopropyl? Yeah, nobody cares.

Much more hazardous are the mechanical things we have. We own a plasma treater, which creates a plasma field for processing polymers. We have a laser cutter. We build a lot of our own equipment with high voltages (AC and DC) and large currents. For a while we had a undergrad investigating flame treatment, which involved a setup to test a nice assortment of flammable materials and gases. And we have a very powerful scara robot arm, which can take your head off if it goes wild.

Figure: Talk to the arm.

Most of the time I adhere to all rules, and try to be a good little safety officer. In fact, we had a random safety inspection one day (I wasn't even in the office at the time), and they found exactly zero issues to report.

But then sometimes, things aren't exactly on the straight and narrow.

That plasma treater? Yeah, we bought it off of eBay, and it looks to be about from the 80s. The "on" switch didn't work, so one student (before my time) just attached a 9V battery and an alligator clip that you connect when you want to fire it up.

And the robot? Well, we installed a fancy laser-triggered barrier to cordon off the area with the arm, so that the robot automatically shuts off if the laser is crossed. The problem is that the barrier is quite far from the robot, so you can't see very well from outside the barrier. So most of the time I will just stand inside the barrier and avoid triggering the laser while the robot is running. (Ah lovely, now the barrier is trapping me INSIDE... that can't be good...)

Because we use things like acetone, IPA, and ethanol so often, we have squeeze bottles of those chemicals left out on the counter (in appropriate secondary containment, of course). We also use methanol, and there's a squeeze bottle of that too. But just yesterday, someone pointed out that technically, methanol is only supposed to be used with gloves under a fume hood... whoops.

Fortunately, there's never been a serious accident in my lab since I've been here. A scrape or two in the machine shop is the worst that goes on. But just yesterday, I was working on a silicon wafer, and while I was prying it out of my setup, it broke and splashed the ethanol I was rinsing it with into my eyes. Ouch! Fortunately I'm fine, but it's a good reminder that bad things can indeed happen if you are lazy.

Figure: Safety goggles, Miss Outlier, it's not hard - just wear them...
Do you have someone designated in your lab to deal with safety stuff? If you had to grade your lab, would you give yourself an A for safety?

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