Adventures in Ethics and Science

Do you self-report lab mishaps?

This is a question that occurred to me earlier this month when I had occasion to observe an undergraduate laboratory course: If something goes wrong in the lab, do you tell the lab instructor? The “something wrong” could range from breaking a piece of glassware, to getting a stick with a syringe (of non-biohazardous material), to getting a stick with a syringe (of biohazardous or radioactive material), to spilling a nasty reagent. Of course, it could include other mishaps not enumerated here.

I’m not as interested in hearing when students should tell the lab instructor about a mishap, but rather in the conditions in which you would bring the lab instructor into the information loop.

And, I’m interested in hearing the reasons you think some mishaps don’t meet the threshold where you’d want to involve the lab instructor. What’s the main consideration in deciding whether a nick with a scalpel is going to become A Thing, or whether you’ll just hunt down a bandage and a fresh pair of gloves?


  1. #1 Jason
    September 26, 2007

    I’m a graduate student, and I tend to not report many of the things that our safety department says that we should. The reason is that such self-reports are almost always met with some measure of public embarrassment, usually in the form of a mass email informing the entire department of what happened. There are other forms of “punishment” as well, such as a mandate that our entire lab take an “eye safety” course after two students coincidentally had splash incidents in a short period of time (only one of which was remotely hazardous).

    Usually it comes down to a personal risk assessment. If I feel that the incident truly has the potential to be harmful, I’ll take official action to get it resolved. If it’s one of the mission-creep regulations that it seems the safety department comes up with to occupy their time, I tend to just clean up/fix things myself.

  2. #2 Propter Doc
    September 26, 2007

    As an undergrad the lab instructor was the keeper of the first aid supplies so that influences my answer.
    I guess I would report anything that caused me to draw attention to myself, like a smelly spill, or yelling in pain; or anything that stopped me from carrying out the experiment in question, like a broken condensor, spilled reactants or similar. Other than that, I wouldn’t bother the instructor. BuLi syringe fires were never reported, mercury spills were pipetted up and most minor mishaps ignored. I think I had a sense of what I could and couldn’t handle so I mainly asked for help when I felt out of my depth, which was a round about way of reporting a mishap.

  3. #3 Taylor Hain
    September 26, 2007

    I would report anything that I felt was dangerous, and by dangerous…I do not mean little things like broken glass (well…to an extent). Mostly this is because I once dropped a 10ml volumetric flask and the neck cracked. I reported this to my lab instructor who told me to pay up. $30 dollars later (for an item that cost $2.50 according to the student lab cashier) I learned my lesson.

  4. #4 Janne
    September 26, 2007

    I work in robotics, not chemistry or biology so the baseline for safety is somewhat different (though high-pressure hydraulics and errant mechanical limbs are not risk-free). Overall, whenever an incident exposes a safety issue that’s a very good time to bring it up, and not just with the head but also directly with the other people working with the equipment. That can be anything from insufficient safety enclosures to setting fire to a robot with a badly designed motor controller (which I have done at one time).

    If, on the other hand, it was just about breaking something, then no – I’d just bring it up if it inconveniences other workers, or I needed extra resources to fix it.

    If it’s something that can harm people, bring it up. If it affects other peoples’ projects, bring it up. Otherwise, no.

  5. #5 coathangrrr
    September 26, 2007

    I haven’t been in a lab in a while but as a student I think the “you broke it you bought it” rule definitely discourages reporting incidents. I don’t remember reporting anything to the lab techs, though I do remember a number of broken containers of one sort or another. We’d all just get it into the sink or waste container and pretend like it never happened.

  6. #6 NJ
    September 27, 2007

    I did, in fact, have to file a safety report when I fell. Out in the field. On a sharp rock. Embedding it deeply in my hand.

    The form asked what steps could be taken to prevent such accidents in the future. I was sorely tempted to answer “Ensure all rocks exposed on Earth’s surface are rounded. Reconfigure human DNA to increase coordination.”

  7. #7 S. Rivlin
    September 27, 2007

    I hope you won’t mind if I expand the lab mishap to include a research lab and students and technicians who work there. I think the mishap I am about to describe could be avoided if students will learn early to follow procedures and report mishaps as required.

    Working on a project that compared the epileptogenicity of several antibiotics to that of Na-penicillin, the technician who performed the experiments used, by mistake, K-peniicillin. Though in their antibiotic activity the two peniecillins are not much different, potassuim, at concentrations similar to the concentration of penicillin used in the study, could be epileptogenic on its own. The technician never told anyone of her mistake and continued to use K-penicillin to the end. Only when the study was about to be submitted for publication it was discovered that the wrong antibiotic was used. Needless to say much money, time and experimental animals were waisted, but at least erroneous data were not published. Whether the technician was afraid to admit her mistake or too proud to do so, mistakes and mishaps occur and no one is above them.

  8. #8 William the Coroner
    September 27, 2007

    I work as a pathologist. Needle sticks are a part of life. There’s a whole big brou-ha-ha that ancillary staff follows, but physican staff have to actually, you know, finish the job and not kill the patient. The docs ignore it.

    Did have a small fire in a vacuum cleaner after it had been disinfected with ethanol. The mortician who caused it fixed it, and got a day off without pay. This SHARPLY reduced the number of incident reports. Wasn’t in a patient care area, no patients injured, it got dealt with internally.

  9. #9 Lab Rat
    September 28, 2007

    I would say the first criteria would be if the mishap could potentially harm oneself and/or others. It might be difficult for students to assess potential harm, but that’s where the lab instructor’s responsibilities come in.

    Also, if I were teaching back-to-back lab sessions, I would be mildly annoyed if a student didn’t report the breakage of any equipment essential to the lab session, thus forcing subsequent students to run around in circles trying to find out where they went wrong.

  10. #10 Leah
    September 29, 2007

    Interesting to hear that many people don’t want to report for fear of paying for glassware. In my chem classes, everyone had a box of necessary glassware checked out to them at the beginning of the semester (along with a key to our glassware drawer and a list of the cost of each piece). If we broke a piece and didn’t report it, we would then be down a piece for any subsequent labs. Thankfully, we only had to pay up if a piece broke through negligence.

    As a field biologist, I don’t report any of my accidents, even though I suppose I should. I even got a tetanus shot earlier this summer for a rusty wire scratch. The paper work is just too much, and I feel lame reporting something that wasn’t serious.

    I’d definitely report a broken bone. Maybe that’s my line.

    With lab accidents, I think I’d just report something if I couldn’t clean it up myself or felt like my injury might actually be serious.

  11. #11 Xanthir, FCD
    November 26, 2007

    As a student in lab, we use a system similar to Leah’s – we get all our glassware checked out to us at the beginning of the semester and have to pay for replacements. So I’d definitely report broken glassware, if only because I know I can’t get out of it and I might as well get it replaced immediately.

    Actual injuries, I wouldn’t report if they were minor. I’ve had acid spills and such that I simply washed off – we all know that they’re no big deal. I’d report it if I was actually injured (like a large acid spill on myself, or a decent cut), or if it damaged something that wasn’t mine.

    We also don’t have much in the way of paperwork, though, so that probably affects my perception of how much effort I’m willing to put forth.

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