Field of Science

Is it too early to ask for automation in lab safety?

Let's face it. Graduate students do work occasionally without lab coats. Sometimes you have to do a quick procedure and sometimes you can just get bored of wearing the coat. I don't recall a time when I have walked into a lab and not seen someone not wearing a coat. Most of these individuals were hopefully not working with dangerous reagents, but the point is that it's human nature to be occasionally negligent. While Sheri Sangji's not wearing a coat was a breach of basic safety protocol (although it's not clear how far the coat would have gone in lessening her injuries), she was no more guilty of violating this safety norm than many other graduate students around the world. It's certainly not right but I don't think the practice is going to disappear anytime soon.

Then there's the question of Prof. Harran's responsibility in enforcing safety standards which I have talked about in a previous post. Even if a professor constantly monitors lab coat violation, he is naturally not going to patrol his lab 24 hours a day during each and every experiment. In addition, even the most diligent professor who is straggled with multiple responsibilities (research, grant writing, teaching, mentoring, administrative work) is going to have an occasional lapse of safety.

The reason I was mulling over these two points was to remind myself of something we all know about; you can't fight human nature. And since human nature is not going to go away, it seems odd to depend purely on human beings to enforce safety standards in a lab. The obvious question that then came to my mind was;
why aren't automated systems employed for enforcing at least some safety standards in chemistry laboratories? Why do we still mainly depend on human beings to make sure everyone obeys safety protocols?

This seems especially pertinent if we think of the many other industries and research environments where technology reduces our dependence on the whims and uncertainties of human nature. In industries ranging from the nuclear to the aerospace to the automobile industries, multiple primary and backup systems are in place to kick in during those sadly too frequent occasions when human negligence, error and indifference endanger property and lives. It seems odd to me that in an age when technology is extensively used to deploy automated safety systems in multiple spheres of life, we are still depending on humans to constantly enforce basic and essential safety rules like the wearing of lab coats, glasses and gloves.

Automated systems would of course not protect lab personnel against every accident and it goes without saying that human review would still be necessary, but I don't see why relatively simple systems could not lead to a safer chemical workplace.

Two such simple systems come to my mind. In most current cars, you can open the door only when your keys are closer to it than a certain distance. There is clearly a proximity sensor in the car which detects the keys. A similar system could be used in a lab that would allow a chemical hood to function only when it detects a lab coat. A simple RFID tag embedded in the coat would activate a complementary sensor in the hood. So unless the person who approaches the hood has his or her lab coat on all the time, the hood would essentially go into lock down mode or at least activate an annoying alarm that can be turned off only when the coat is worn (similar to the beeping that results from not wearing a seat belt in a car). The proximity sensor system could hinge on RFID, infrared or optical sensors and the exact details would be dictated by cost, efficiency and mass deployment. But the technology certainly seems to exist and it should not be too expensive or difficult to install such a system in place. The system could of course also detect other safety gear like lab goggles and gloves.

As useful as such techniques for detecting lab gear could be, they would not stop an accident after it happens. A comprehensive automated safety framework needs provisions for both prevention and cure. These systems should especially be viable in the presence of a human being who is unable to take care of himself or herself. Although interfering with a runaway accident after it happens is difficult, there could be a few options. In case of Sheri Sangji, a violently flammable chemical spilled on her lab coat and caught fire, spreading to her sweater. For the next few minutes there was an intense cluster of "hot spots" in the room which she worked in. One could have a fairly simple infrared scanning system which sweeps the room and activates an alarm when it detects such a swarm of high-temperature spots, especially when they are moving. Implementing the condition of motion could help prevent the system from being set off by false positives such as hot flasks and beakers.

These are just a few thoughts. Naturally any such system would have to be refined, tuned and tested and would be subject to emergency human overrides. But it just seems to me that we should be able to implement at least a few robust automated safety systems for preventing lab tragedies when we take their existence in virtually every other aspect of our modern industrial lifestyle for granted.


  1. I like the RFID tag on a lab coat, but just hanging it up next to your hood would then activate it.

    My experience has shown that habit - as in enforcing good habits - are the best way to make good practice the standard practice.

  2. Heh, one idea for automated lab safety: keep the lab cold. Then everyone wears the lab coat to keep warm.

  3. I did think about eliminating the coat hanger hooks next to the hood. One could also have personalized RFID tags and coats but that might make general emergency override procedures more inaccessible. In general one just needs to have a seat-belt type system which beeps annoyingly when certain protocols have not been followed.

  4. In most cases, lax safety is a direct result of a lack of awareness of risk. I'd worry that automation of any kind would only serve to give a false sense of security to many, and may even increase the number of accidents.

  5. Mr fix it says...
    1) automation is not cheap, most academic labs and startups can not afford
    2) automation is best for repetitive tasks, like DNA or peptide synthesis, generally speaking not an array of reaction conditions optimize yield.

  6. Anon: The argument about having a false sense of security has been played out in other contexts. But there's always room for the right balance of automation and periodic human training. Automation certainly shouldn't do away with the need for safety drills for instance.

    "Mr. Fixit:" The relatively modest price of things like RFID tags and sensors (relative to the total research budget) and the possible benefits for safety may compensate for price.

  7. I am all for automation but I doubt that despite all these news of 'chemical accidents' (including your point about availability bias) there have been enough serious accidents to wake up chemistry departments around the world to take note. Even if it's an inexpensive addition, the will to make such change on a large scale will need an extraordinary driving force. I don't think there is one.

  8. I think this is a great idea. And, it is not difficult to come up with a system that detects whether the user is wearing the lab coat. For example, a cheap temp sensor connected to the sensor in the lab coat will quicly tell whether the coat is worn or just hanging there from a hook.

    But why restrict the system to fume hoods? I think it is better to secure the doors to the labs so that whoever enters the lab will hear an alarm if he/she is not wearing the lab coat. Many industrial labs mandate _all people_ (yes, even the bosses) to wear personal protection whenever they enter the lab - even if they are far away from the fume hoods.

    Also, in emergencies it might be necessary to open the fume hood anyway. Locking them is not safe. However an alarm that sounds when someone enters the lab without lab coat is annoying but does not prevent someone from entering in an emergency.

  9. Luckily I am a theoretician so do not worry about lab coats. However putting roadblocks in front of intelligent and educated people is counter productive. Simply have the lab director enforce the rule. By analogy, no pirated software is allowed on any of my computers. If it happened that some is discovered, then I am financially responsible for it. You can be sure that I make it clear to students that pirated software will not be tolerated.

    By the same token, if inspectors appear and someone is guilty of a safety infraction, the lab director should be held responsible. This will make him/her insist that safety protocols are followed. Ultimately safety is the responsibility of the director, and that includes communicating the rules and enforcing them.

  10. I like the idea of securing the doors and rigging them to activate an annoying alarm in the absence of a lab coat.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS