PPE Lab Experiences Worth Sharing
Use Real-Life Stories to Help Students Stay Safe
It can be difficult to convince students to use proper personal protective equipment (PPE) in the laboratory. Even with rules, safety contracts, reminders, and warnings, getting students to wear PPE is a challenge. As a chemistry instructor, one approach that I found helpful was to share true stories of incidents that could have been worse without the use of PPE.
Goggles: The Projectile Pencil Story
In most labs at my university, mine included, it’s a rule that goggles stay on—not just until your experiment is finished—but until you leave the lab. Because my students followed that rule, a freak accident that did not involve chemicals or glassware was prevented.
This story sounds unbelievable, but it actually happened. Two of my undergraduate students had finished their lab work and were cleaning up, goggles still on. One of the students accidentally dropped a pencil that landed eraser first on the floor and bounced up, rocketing directly toward her lab mate’s eyes. Fortunately, the “on target” pencil point hit the goggle lens, preventing injury. Without hesitation, my TA announced, “And that, people, is why we wear goggles!” After that, the TA never had to remind that class to wear their goggles again—it was 100% goggles on! Retelling the story of this unrepeatable, random event has helped me convey the importance of wearing goggles until you leave the lab because you have to be prepared for unexpected events. One lab group may be finished, but as long as students are still working, goggles must remain on for protection from splashed chemicals, shattered glass, and other “unexpected” projectiles.
Lab Coats: The Flaming Ethanol Story
Keeping your clothing clean is not the main reason for wearing a lab coat, as this story makes clear.
Requiring gloves and lab coats depends on the experiment and the regulations of each specific lab environment. If there is ever a spill or a fire, gloves and lab coats are a protective barrier between your students and injury. When I was in graduate school one of my lab mates spilled some ethanol near a Bunsen burner. Some splashed up and hit his lab coat which immediately started on fire. He quickly removed his coat and stomped out the flames without injury. Had he not been wearing a coat the outcome surely would have been worse.
Closed-toed Shoes: The Falling Scalpel Story
Considering the popularity of flip-flop sandals, this is an important safety message. One of my colleagues at Flinn shared this story to illustrate why shoes don’t have to be steel-toed to be PPE.
Students commonly forget to wear the proper shoes to lab because they often don’t see why shoes should matter. When it comes to using sharp instruments or glassware in the lab, closed-toed shoes are essential. Once in a biology class during a dissection, a student knocked a scalpel off the lab bench. The scalpel cut through the shoe and lodged there, point first. Because the student was wearing closed-toed shoes the scalpel caused no injury.
Use Personal, Positive Experiences to Support Safety Rules
In my teaching, sharing personal experiences of minor incidents that could have been worse without the use of PPE has helped students attend to their own safety and that of their lab mates. What stories do you and your colleagues have about accidents that were avoided thanks to PPE? Sharing those stories with students may help change their perspective regarding the value of protective equipment and makes it easier to enforce your lab safety rules.
Senior Staff Scientist