An important step in designing your experiment involves identifying and evaluating any potential safety risks. Knowing what these risks are ahead of time can help you avoid accidents and dangerous situations, which helps keep the experiment safe and fun for all.
Safety Is Important
Running scientific experiments is one of the reasons people become scientists. Coming up with research projects is fun, but getting in there and actually doing science is a blast! But before you go blasting away with your experiment, it's important to consider all of the necessary safety precautions. I know this isn't part of the fun. But, if you minimize your experimental risks and have a safety plan in place, you're more likely to enjoy the work than if you get injured or something else goes wrong.
Assessing the Risk
The good news is that there are plenty of ways to identify and avoid potential safety risks for your scientific experiments. The first thing to do is think of all the possible things that can go wrong. This isn't pessimistic; it's practical. Thinking ahead of any potential accident will only help you to avoid it. For example, think about all of the places people could trip and fall, any harm that could come from your equipment, the types of chemicals being used and possible reactions between them, how many people will be involved and in what space they will be working, and other things of that nature.
The potential risks you face will be specific to each experiment, so you can't just come up with one list for everything. For example, if you're working in an aquatic system, you need to be aware of the risk of someone falling into the water, cutting their foot on a rock, dropping electronics into the water, bacteria that may pose a safety risk, if strong currents are present, animals they may come in contact with, sun exposure, heat stroke, etc.
But if you're working in a lab, you don't need to be concerned with any of those things, so your risk assessment will be quite different. Here, you'll need to consider completely different risks, like chemical reactions, personal protective equipment, dangerous fumes, glass containers, chemical burns, spills, slips, and more. As you can see, assessing the potential safety risks is a big first step - but one that can't be skipped!
Personnel, Prep, & PPE
Another factor to consider in your safety plan is to think about who will be involved in the experiment. It's important that your experimental personnel are properly trained in the tasks they will be performing. But you'll also want to think about how many people will be working together. There's definitely something to be said for working in groups for safety purposes, but when does that group become so large that it turns into a hazard? If you have a lab that is crammed full of people, the likelihood of an accident may increase as more bodies are moving around working.
The next step is to prepare everything for your experiment. Make sure you have the right supplies and equipment and in the right amounts, your work surfaces are clean, you are familiar with the area in which you'll be working (this will reduce the risk of running into an unexpected object or tripping over something), and that you have emergency procedures in place. Do you have a first-aid kit ready, and is it easy to access? Does everyone have a list of emergency phone numbers in case there is an accident? Is there a fire extinguisher on hand, and do people know how to use it? Having these steps outlined ahead of time will reduce a lot of the chaos and confusion that inevitably occurs with an accident.
Okay, so you've got your people and workspace set up. Good job! Now let's get those people protected. PPE, or personal protective equipment, is equipment used to minimize injury and illness. This includes safety goggles, lab coats and aprons, ventilation hoods, rubber gloves, and more. The type of PPE your personnel need is also going to be dependent on the type of experiment you are running. Sometimes they may need to be covered from head to toe in gear that protects them from hazardous chemicals, while at other times they may only need to wear gloves, boots, and a hat to protect them from the weather.
Basic Safety Rules
In addition to the more in-depth safety planning you'll do, there are also some basic safety rules to follow no matter where you are working. These apply to almost every situation, so you should either memorize them or keep a list handy for reference.
This list includes things like not putting any unknown substance or chemical in your mouth, washing your hands after working with substances or animals, using appropriate equipment to lift or move hot or cold containers, dressing appropriately, not goofing around, not leaving substances or equipment unattended, disposing of materials properly, putting things back in the right containers, and cleaning up after yourself when you're done.
Much of this is common sense and may seem silly to have to state. But, believe it or not, there are plenty of cases where accidents could have been avoided by simply following basic safety rules. So, while they may seem trivial, remember that they are in place for a reason and really should be followed at all times.
Accidents, injuries, and illnesses can occur during any type of scientific experiment, so it's important to think ahead and assess any possible safety hazards that may occur. While no one wants to think about all that can go wrong, the more time you spend planning for potential incidents, the less likely they are to occur, and the better prepared you are to handle them if they do arise.
Important factors to consider include who will be involved in the experiment, what equipment and materials they'll be using, the space they'll be working in, and what safety precautions are already in place. As the saying goes, 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.' Safety planning isn't always fun, but running safe experiments sure is!
When you have acquired thorough knowledge of this lesson's information, you could:
- Realize the importance of assessing safety hazards before beginning an experiment
- Specify the factors that should be considered when safety planning
- Name several pieces of personal protective equipment
- Recollect the basic safety rules that should always be followed