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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Tuesday Twat(S)

No. 3. The Health and Safety Executive

Health and Safety Executive

Please Note, that access will be required to all apartments on
Tuesday the 1st of February. This is to allow
Health and Safety stickers to be placed on all windows.
So reads the notice pinned to the door in my apartment block yesterday. What? Has the world gone mad? Already we have had window inspectors come around to ensure that I haven't disconnected the locking bracket that restricts my window's opening to a 4 cm gap. What precisely do they think I will be doing with the windows that is so dangerous? I live on the 8th floor. I estimate that there is 23 metres of fresh(ish) air between my window sill and the busy road below. Do they think that I am going to remove the window (it swings downward so I can't just push it open), climb on top of the bookcase and dangle my legs out of the window so that I can get an extra large lungfull of the exhaust fumes from the buses trundling past? Perhaps they are worried that I may be playing volleyball near the window and inadvertantly jump up, squeeze through the gap and fall to my death below? Maybe they are concerned that my parents will sue the Building Management in the event of my death
"He was a lovely lad, but a bit simple. If only you had placed a sticker on the window telling him not to smash through the reinforced double glazing with the nest of tables, then impersonate that scene from Bridget Jones' Diary, whilst listening to Geri Halliwell murdering 'its raining men', then he'd still be here to day".
When I signed the contract for my apartment, I had to fill in one of those nosy forms that ask your ethnicity, your marital status, who you work for, how much you earn and if you like a quick hand shandy before showering in the morning. If they had simply asked the simple question "Are you a stupid fucker?", then they could have saved the expense of printing all of those stickers. As it happens, Tuesday has come and gone and I haven't had a knock on the door from a Sticker Application Technician. I figure that if I jump out the window now, my parents could still sue Building managment and retire early. I really am selfless sometimes.
Whether these stickers are actually mandated by Her Majesty's Health and Safety Executive, is unclear. But it is the sort of thing that they would think up. Being a professional scientist, everything I do is governed by a remarkable number of Health and Safety regulations. Whenever I use a new chemical in the lab, I have to read and sign a COSHH form (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health). If it's a chemical that no one happens to have used in our lab before, then I have to create a new one. Sure, I can see the wisdom in making sure I've read the safety notice on the side of the bottle of concentrated hydrochloric acid - but sodium chloride (that's table salt) or (and I'm not exagerating here) WATER? Water by the way may cause breathing difficulties if inhaled. If splashed in the eye, wash out with copious amounts of warm water and seek medical advice.
Laboratory rules are quite straight forward.
1) Appropriate protective equipment must be worn at all times. i.e. a lab coat. Also safety glasses and gloves.
Sure I wear my lab coat when I am doing experiments - I'm too tight-fisted to buy a new T-shirt if I spill acid down the front for starters. But is it really necessary to wear one when I just nipped into the lab to take some DNA out of the freezer? And safety glasses? The days of wearing face fitting diving masks are long gone fortunately, but the glasses still resemble a cross between NHS glasses circa 1960 and those massive oversized novelty sunglasses that you used to buy at the beach as a kid. And the side protection (clear perspex shields that sit between the lens and your ear) make you feel that you are constantly being followed by some stalker who remains in your peripheral vision. I wear my safety specs when using the microwave (in case the stuff overboils), when using dangerous or corrosive chemicals (in case I splash) or when using radioisotope (stops splashing and reduces stray radiation damaging the retina - probably bollocks but it makes you feel better). I DO NOT wear them when standing at my bench working out my experimental protocol on the back of a post-it note.
And gloves - I get through countless pairs of latex surgical gloves each day. But that will soon be a thing of the past if HSE gets its way. They are getting increasingly concerned with the rising numbers of people with latex allergies. Recently they banned powered gloves. This was a good thing. Even after a weekend away from the lab, my hands would still smell like the inside of a used condom come monday morning. Now however they have decided that all latex gloves must go and be replaced by nitrile. The problem is that latex is stretchy. A good fitting pair of gloves is like a second skin - I take a medium size and find I don't even notice I'm wearing them. Nitrile gloves by contrast don't stretch at all and I am between sizes. Medium gloves squeeze my hands uncomfortably and the resistance means that opening and closing my hands makes my fingers ache after a few minutes. The large gloves hang of my hands in a manner reminiscent to that guy at the end of Robocop who falls in a vat of toxic chemicals and his skin falls off. There is no feeling in them and the loose rubber tends to bunch slightly on the finger tips. I have no history of any allergies (neither does anyone in my family), and don't suffer from dry skin or eczema - I figure the danger of developing either condition is far outweighed by the danger to my skin of me dropping a bottle of corrosive chemicals or to my self respect if I have a public temper tantrum because I've just cross-contaminated my samples by dropping the sterile toothpick I'm trying to manipulate aseptically.
2) No eating, drinking, smoking or applying of cosmetics.
This comes under the category of "No hand to mouth operations". Commonsense advice I'm sure you'll agree. We work regularly with E. coli in addition to various dangerous substances. But surely, this also covers most of the requirements of a COSHH form? I.e Chemical X is non-corrosive and doesn't give you breathing difficulties - but it'll make you as sick as a parrot so don't lick your fingers after weighing it out.
Surely, chemicals can be classified into two broad groups:
1) Poisonous if swallowed - so don't. No need to fill in a COSHH form.
2) Has other dangerous properties - fill in a COSHH form and take additional precautions.
So paranoid about health and safety are some lab managers, that I have seen people standing outside the lab frantically chewing a throat lozenge that they have been sucking in the write-up area, so that they can cross the threshold into the lab to get a marker pen or their lab book without breaking H&S. Unless they are one of those disgusting individuals who like to remove half-chewed food from their mouth and inspect it before putting it back in - what's the problem? We're supposed to be highly trained professionals, can't they trust us?
With all of that said, you'd think that the Health and Safety Inspectors would have a field day when they visit the lab. Funnily enough they don't. Firstly, our lab manager emails us a week before the inspection and tells us that, under no circumstances whatsoever is anyone to be actually doing any work in the lab when the Inspector arrives. And that we should all have a tidy-up before the big day. The result is a spotlessly clean laboratory with no evidence that anyone actually does any science in it. And 20 lab members drinking coffee and trying to look inconspicuous in the write-up area.
Our last inspection turned up two major faults.
1) The padlock to the isotope fridge was undone. We felt it best not to mention that nobody knows where the key is. The fact that to gain access to the lab requires swipecard access and a key is irrelevant. Al Quaeda are everywhere!
2) People shouldn't leave their lab coats on the back of their chairs - its a trip hazard.
I for one feel just that little bit safer...




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