Monthly Archives: May 2015

Cautionary Tales in Lab Safety

lab-safety-cautionary-talesAn old adage says we must learn the lessons of history or be doomed to repeat them. Nothing is truer than that when it comes to lab safety. The work that makes our labs so safe today was conducted in labs that were anything but harmless places to work a hundred years and more ago. As makers of dedicated lab furniture that contributes to lab safety, we thought we’d focus on safety issues from the perspective of some historic lab accidents—or those that could have been.

The Eyes Have It

Eyes are definitely some of the most valuable, and vulnerable, research components in the lab. We’ve got to see what we’re doing or we will accomplish nothing. This means that, especially in the years before the development—through research—of high-grade, transparent plastics, eyes have the honor of being the body part most vulnerable to injury in the lab.

Take, for example, the case of Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac (1778–1850), who was studying potassium in 1808 and was temporarily blinded by an explosion. While his eyesight never fully recovered, this was actually a blessing for him, because it made him invest in expensive corrective lenses which actually did protect his eyes in at least one explosion at a later date!

Robert Bunsen (1811–1899), of Bunsen burner fame, was another casualty of a research lab eye injury. He was actually quite the risk-taker, climbing into geysers to measure water temperature—but it was in his own home lab in Germany that he lost an eye when a flask containing cacodyl chloride exploded.

The Dangers of Breathing in Your Lab

Bunsen’s eye wasn’t the only casualty of his dedicated research efforts. His lungs were severely damaged when he inhaled toxic fumes while investigating arsenic compounds. Fume hoods had not yet become a standard part of every research lab, as they are today, providing no escape from the fumes generated by Bunsen’s experiments.

Fluorine is probably the element that has caused the most historical lab safety accidents. Because it is so difficult to isolate, combining and reacting with just about everything else in the lab, many people have suffered from hydrogen fluoride poisoning in their attempts to isolate this volatile compound. Even Henri Moissan (1852–1907), who eventually solved the problem by chilling his research compounds to –23ºC using newly developed refrigeration techniques, would probably have suffered from breathing toxic fumes in his earlier research, but he died of appendicitis first!

Ignorance Wasn’t Always the Lab Safety Problem

Of course, human stubbornness (or stupidity?) plays a key factor in lab safety accidents as well—and sometimes it’s sheer luck that prevents them. We find it quite ironic that Robert Burns Woodward (note his middle name!) survived a long history of smoking in his research lab without either causing a fatal fire or (as far as we know) suffering from ingesting airborne compounds that would have contaminated his cigarettes. There is a reason that today’s lab safety rules include no eating, drinking, or smoking in research labs today. Woodward (1917-1979) lived much more recently than some of those earlier researchers, and knew the risks inherent in his smoking—but it did not stop him from doing it anyway.

While we can learn lab safety tips from the tales of these researchers, there is always more to learn, and more sophisticated dedicated lab furniture to construct in the interests of lab safety. Contact us today to find out what we’re learning as we customize lab furniture for the next generation of researchers.

Helping the Next Generation with a Mass Spectrometer

mass-spectrometer-newbornsGiving children the best possible start in life is a universal goal. Good parents strive to ensure they have a healthy baby, researching what the latest studies say about diet, supplements, exercise, and a variety of other factors.

However, there are some factors that couples cannot control. One of those is the possibility of inherited genetic disorders.

Fortunately for today’s parents, the mass spectrometer is coming to the rescue. Using one simple blood sample taken from a newborn baby between 24 and 72 hours after birth, tandem mass spectrometry can quickly and accurately screen for the possibility of over 30 disorders.

Detecting the possibility of disorders this early allows for follow-up tests to determine a diagnosis and often simple changes in the babies’ diets, giving infants the opportunity to flourish and avoid disabilities or premature death despite the chemical imbalances present in their blood.

Why the Mass Spectrometer?

In the scientific community, we all know that the mass spec has been transforming research for decades. The exciting thing is that every new generation of researchers is coming up with new and innovative uses for this research lab workhorse.

Utilized by our nation’s war machine and popularized in crime scene analysis on television, the reliable mass spec is now transforming the world of medicine. With one simple drop of blood, an infant can be screened for dozens of diseases—instead of just one—in minutes. High resolution mass spec analysis makes all the difference.

Why Tandem?

While the mass spec is great at generating data, the volume of that data is sometimes more than the average newborn screening lab can handle—or really needs.

The advantage of linking mass spectrometers in tandem (called MS/MS) is that the first MS can conduct a basic, complete analysis of the blood sample, then transfer the sample to a collision cell for breakdown into component parts. Then the second MS can conduct a more thorough analysis of the target components: amino acids and acylcarnitines.

Why Now?

This innovative breakthrough is only possible because of shifts in costs and the advantages of “volume discounts” made possible by the creation of specialized newborn screening labs.

The mass spectrometer is a complex instrument and requires exacting collection methods and analysis. From the special paper for collecting blood samples to the technicians running the MS/MS and the specialists interpreting the results, there are significant costs involved in tandem mass spectrometry.

In order for the lab to pay its bills, they must screen tens of thousands of samples each year. That volume was not possible until the full integration of computer technology allowed the process to be automated.

Why the MS/MS Needs Dedicated Lab Furniture

Specialized uses of the mass spectrometer echo the need for specialized furniture to support these ever-evolving, useful machines.

Naturally, these MS machines will require a specialized lab bench to support them, and running thousands of screenings on that MS/MS every year will generate wear and tear on the lab bench. If the bench is not specially designed to support additional weight and the vibration of vacuum pumps, the MS/MS experience vibration beyond specifications, preventing the machine from doing its job right and potentially generating false positives or negatives for anxious parents.

It’s a good example of why we believe specialized lab furniture is necessary for each new use of the mass spectrometer. For that reason, we’ve developed dedicated lab benches for MS/MS, including the Waters Xevo TQ-S and the Agilent 6400 Series, and we’re happy to develop others as the need arises.

To find out how our lab benches can support your innovative uses of the MS, contact us today.

Some Common Lab Safety Issues

lab-safety-issuesWe mention lab safety frequently in this blog. It’s something we recognize is a benefit of using the dedicated lab furniture we sell. While our products help make labs safer by containing the noise from vacuum pumps, handling the weight of heavy mass spectrometers and creating an organized work space for the various support equipment that advanced machines like mass spectrometers and HPLCs require, we also know a lot more can go wrong in the average laboratory.

The University of Texas recently compiled a list of 12 common lab safety issues, and we think they were right on target. In our continuing mission to make labs safer, we thought it would be good to share some of these issues.

Food and Clothing Considerations

Some of the items on the University of Texas’s list relate to things that you bring into the lab. It’s important to remember that a research lab is a professional environment. Don’t bring your lunch into the lab (or any type of food or drink) if you’re going to be anywhere near hazardous materials.

You also need to keep safety in mind when it comes to the clothing you wear in your research lab. For instance, in the same way that you should never wear open-toed shoes at a construction site, you should also never wear them in a research lab. Even if you do have dedicated lab furniture in your lab, you could drop something heavy or caustic on those exposed toes as you’re transferring materials from one lab bench to another. You could also stub your toe on one of the lab bench legs or casters.

Shelter Your Materials

It’s important to exercise care storing, segregating and disposing of chemicals.  Make sure acids are stored in an acid cabinet or in plastic containers and tubs. Nitric acid should be stored separately.

As a general rule you want to keep waste containers and fume hoods closed whenever possible. Secure gas cylinders with safety caps when not in use. Also be sure that unwanted chemicals are disposed of using proper hazardous material disposal procedures.

A Place for Everything, and Everything in Its Place

Spills create a great safety risk. You should make sure that spill supplies are conveniently located and easily accessible. Remove clutter from the top of your dedicated lab furniture, and from around the sides of your lab benches. It’s a lot easier to keep exits and aisles clear if everything has its place in your lab.

You also don’t want a spaghetti-pile of cables and extension cords, which can be a trip hazard or cause equipment to fall off your lab bench if someone pulls on a cord that’s gotten tangled. That’s why we design our dedicated lab furniture with grommets that arrange cables and vacuum hoses to both protect them and keep them from becoming tangled and causing accidents.

Making labs safer is one of the reasons why we believe dedicated lab furniture is worth the investment. Contact us today with your questions and we’ll share more about why our well-designed lab benches can improve safety and reliability in your laboratory.