An 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.