Texas Tech University

Is Your Lab or Studio Ready for the Unexpected?

By David Dorsett

We are all familiar with the famous Ben Franklin quote that states, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This was recently put to the test at the Experimental Sciences Building (ESB), where a ruptured fire sprinkler line caused some flooding in some of the lab areas of the building. This event reminded us that while it is critical that faculty and students focus primarily on their research and creative activities, it is equally critical that laboratory and studio leaders develop clear and complete emergency preparedness plans to deal with unexpected events, both natural and man-made. The suggestions below are based on our experience at ESB and may be helpful as you prepare for such events. Other guidance is available in the TTU Chemical Hygiene Plan (particularly sections 2 and 11).

  • Power Failure:
    While rare, power outages on campus are not unheard of. In a laboratory setting, the primary concerns in this area are freezers and sensitive diagnostic equipment. In a studio setting, concerns may include sudden shutoffs of power tools. Some of the buildings on campus presently have emergency generators that can alleviate some of the problems associated with a power failure. If your facility is so equipped, critical equipment such as ultra-low temp freezers should utilize these outlets whenever possible. These outlets are typically colored red to distinguish them from the regular power outlets. If you are not sure if your facility has emergency power, please contact the building manager if the facility has one, or you can contact the Physical Plant at 742-3301.

    However, it should be noted that while emergency generators are a great asset, they are not foolproof. Many people make the mistaken assumption that these outlets are always powered and do not fail, and they therefore do not check on the equipment that is plugged into them. These circuits are controlled by the same type of breakers as the normal power outlets, and can trip if overloaded or if a power spike comes through. Such overloads or power spikes can happen when the generator turns on. Therefore, if a power outage occurs, the first course of action should be for lab and studio members to check their critical equipment to ensure that it is powered and operating properly. To minimize the damage to sensitive equipment due the power spikes that can be associated with the generators, it is advisable to utilize some sort of surge protection. A step further would be to utilize an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), which has the added benefit of temporarily providing enough power for the equipment to be properly shut down. Please check with the equipment manufacturer for their recommendations in this area to ensure that any applicable warranties are not affected.

    Whether your building has an emergency generator or not, each lab and studio should have a contingency plan in place to address a total loss of power. This is especially important for ultra-low freezers, which can thaw rather quickly resulting in a catastrophic loss of irreplaceable research materials. If possible, store backups of research materials in freezers off-site to minimize any possible losses. It is also advisable that the contents of each freezer and refrigerator be properly inventoried and recorded to help with identifying and replacing any materials that may be damaged by such an event.
  • Flooding and Water Damage:
    Each lab and studio should be prepared for the possibility of a flood, as this is an all too common occurrence. While it would seem reasonable to associate flooding events with occurrences such as an overflowing sink, water leaking from the ceiling has been more common. In buildings such the ESB, there are numerous plumbing and drain lines that run through the spaces above the labs, and leaks do occur from time to time. Floods in a room above labs and studios can also be a problem, as any unsealed floor penetrations will allow the water to drain into the spaces below. Leaks of this nature should be reported to the Physical Plant Emergency Maintenance at 742-3328 as soon as is possible, as a small drip can quickly evolve into a much larger problem. If possible, it is not a bad idea to keep a supply of sheet plastic available to cover sensitive equipment and research samples should such an event occur.
  • Equipment Failure:
    Equipment failures do occur, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Ensuring that all of your critical equipment is properly serviced and maintained by qualified personnel can minimize these occurrences. In addition to this, it is advisable that some sort of monitoring be utilized. For example, many faculty in ESB are utilizing a computer based remote monitoring system for their freezers that notifies the users by text and e-mail if the equipment temperatures falls outside if their parameters. It should be noted that even with the use of such a system, there is no substitute for frequent visual inspection of your equipment, as no automated system is absolutely foolproof.
  • Fire:
    Fire is definitely a possibility in labs and studios that work with open flames and/or volatile chemicals. All personnel should be properly trained in the use of these materials and should follow the proper safety guidelines. All personnel should be properly trained in the use of portable fire extinguishers. In the event of a fire, personal safety should be paramount. Lab and studio occupants should be aware of the location of the fire extinguishers in their area, as well as with the location of the fire alarm pull stations. Activate the fire alarm system and immediately evacuate all non-essential personnel from the area and call 911. Only attempt to extinguish the fire if it is small and you feel comfortable in doing so. When in doubt, do not take chances with your safety. Activate the fire alarm pull station and evacuate the area immediately. Unless otherwise notified, never assume that a fire alarm activation is the result of a test or a false alarm. In this event, evacuate the building in a safe and orderly manner and do not re-enter the facility until notified by the proper authorities that it is safe to do so.
  • Natural disaster:
    In the event of a natural disaster, the primary concern is the quick and orderly shutdown of lab or studio activities in preparation for an evacuation or relocation. While each lab and studio member should be familiar with their building’s Emergency Action Plan, they should also have a lab- or studio-specific plan to address this possibility should an evacuation become necessary. Such a plan should cover not only the shutdown and evacuation procedures, but a clear and current inventory of equipment and contents, especially any hazardous chemical or materials that are present. Copies of this information should be kept in the lab or studio, as well as with a central point of contact such as a building manger if possible.

In all of these scenarios, it is critical that each lab and studio supervisor identify an emergency contact person who can be reached at all times in the event of a disaster. This information should be provided to the building emergency manager, and should be posted on the laboratory or studio entrance. Any information that is pertinent to first responders should be posted on the entrance as well, as these types of incidents can occur after hours or on holidays. Proper communication and preparedness are the keys to ensuring the safety of all members of your laboratory or studio, as well as to minimize the impact of these events on your research and creative activities.

David Dorsett is the building manager for the Experimental Sciences and East Loop Research Buildings.