Texas Tech University

Never Work Alone - Safety Hazards

By Marianne Evola

Recently, I attended a workshop on safety that was hosted by our Environmental Health and Safety division. The presentation was conducted by James Kaufman, Ph.D. from the Laboratory Safety Institute (LSI) and was coordinated for TTU personnel that serve as Chemical Hygiene Officers. Although my role at TTU is not one of a safety expert, I often address safety when I give presentations on responsible research conduct (RCR). As such, I was lucky to have the opportunity to attend due to a couple of empty seats. It was, in fact, the safety expertise of the audience that made this training event intriguing. Everyone in attendance already knew a great deal about safe practices in research and creative activities. Yet everyone in the audience was voluntarily in attendance, seeking out additional training in safety.

I point this out because so many of our students fail to recognize the importance of incorporating the study of responsible research and safety in their career development. Too many students prefer to believe that an hour-long online training course is sufficient to ready them to address all concerns regarding responsible research. I understand their youthful overconfidence because I once embraced a similar attitude. However, life experience and education have a tendency to provide profound lessons in humility and once we encounter career challenges they enable us to realize that many of these RCR topics are denser than we initially realized. As such, most of the LSI seminar attendees asserted that, although they were safety experts, they were in attendance because training seminars always raised their awareness to critical information that had not previously caught their attention. Their goal was to better their knowledge and practices so that they could enhance safety on the TTU campus.

Consistent with this assertion, almost from the start of the training, a topic grabbed my attention. Specifically, my awareness was raised to the safety risks of working alone in the lab or studio. At first, when the safety training specialists pointed out the hazards associated with working alone, I quietly laughed. Memories from that overconfident youth arose regarding some of the first advice given to me by a trusted colleague from when I started graduate school. I was told that to make a good impression as a new graduate student, "you want to be the first one in the lab in the morning and the last one in the lab at night". Thus, from the very start of my research training, I was encouraged to work alone.

As such, for my first couple years of graduate training, I was the first one in the lab in the morning. And was often still there in the evening while the late day students finished off their experiments. Although admittedly, my late day presence in the lab was more motivated by camaraderie than work motivation. However, while working in the early mornings in those empty buildings, I developed a comfort with working alone. Any feelings of vulnerability associated with wandering empty research facilities alone disappeared and I actually found the isolation comforting. Of course, my introverted nature probably helped a lot with that progression. Regardless, given my experiences, I was amused by the assertion that one should never work alone in the lab because my time alone was, in fact, my most productive time of the day.

However, as I sat in the LSI training seminar and thought about my cavalier attitude about working alone, I realized that over the years, many of my colleagues and students had not shared my comforting perception of big empty research buildings. In truth, colleagues and students had expressed reservations regarding working alone in the lab. And honestly, I had never been very understanding regarding those reservations. For the most part, I would roll my eyes and assert that part of research is showing up and taking responsibility and if they were not willing to put the experiments first then perhaps they were not cut out for research. Then, the darker side of my humor would take over and I would cavalierly poke fun about similarity between slasher films and the late-night brown out lighting of many research buildings. In my defense, there is a great deal of truth in the assertion that research often requires around-the-clock dedication. Most of our research, and thus work schedules, were dependent on the metabolic rate of drugs. As such, animals needed to be treated with drugs at odd hours of the day and even night. Experiments were not built around our work hours, rather our work hours were built around our experiments. And, most research disciplines have similar demands regarding odd work requirements.

Unlike many of the safety specialists in attendance at the LSI seminar, I was personally aware that research and creative activities are conducted at all hours of the day and night, on weekends and holidays. Research and creative enterprise are not restricted to a 9-5 workday. As such, working alone is a customary practice in most areas of scholarship. Often, when researchers are sweating through a big project, they will work through the night so that they can make progress on a large experiment. And my more artistic colleagues declare that they work when inspiration strikes and thus it is not uncommon for them to head to the studio in the middle of the night. As such, it is not uncommon for campus laboratories and studios to be active while much of the campus is sleeping.

I lived through an extreme example of that when I was working on my doctoral dissertation. Out of a desire to finish my data collection I ambitiously scheduled a 7-day workweek for several months. However, due to an oversight in my research design, my workdays rapidly escalated to 20-hour days, 7 days a week for a few months. It was my error, so I did what researchers do, I took responsibility and sweated through the project. Between experimental steps, I would sleep on the floor of the lab so that I could work around-the-clock. However, from my perspective, I could not expect my colleagues to pay the price for my design error; it was my responsibility. I could not require, beg or bribe other lab personnel to be present 20-hours a day when my design flaw was responsible for those extreme hours. Thus, I worked around the clock, alone. When research and creative endeavors necessitate long or strange hours, scholars simply assume the role and responsibility. Our reality is that we need to be present to do our work.

However, what I failed to realize many years ago, was how vulnerable I was working alone in those empty research buildings. And apparently, the part of me that was quietly laughing at the LSI seminar still fails to fully realize the safety hazards of working alone. It is not that I have the perception of invulnerability of youth, but rather decades of productive and comforting late-night work hours to desensitize me to those vulnerabilities. But interestingly, as I think back I did encounter some threatening moments while working alone. My graduate studies were conducted at Wayne State University, which is located in urban Detroit. As an urban university, there were many homeless people that frequented the campus and a few had figured out how to live in various university buildings. As such, during one early morning experimental treatment, I got off the elevator on the fourth floor of our research building with a box of narcotics and syringes as a homeless man jumped up from a couch that was positioned in the hallway "break-room" of one of the fourth floor labs. The homeless man and I were both startled by the presence of the other and I rapidly entered one of the locked laboratory rooms. Although I am dating myself, this was the era that preceded widespread availability of cell phones so I could not call campus police for help and I could not see into the hallway to see if the man had vacated the area or whether he was lurking in the hallway with a more negative agenda. Thus, I remained in that locked lab for hours until my lab mates arrived to conduct their morning experiments.

On another occasion, I was walking through the basement hallway of our building where our lab was located when the power went out in the building. Of course, a basement lab and hallway have no windows and I was immediately plunged into complete blackness and had to very slowly and tentatively feel my way to an exit. To this day, I have not forgotten the very primal fear response that I experienced when everything went completely black. You would think that those experiences would have taught me something about the vulnerability that comes with working alone. However, it was easy to dismiss these odd events because normally everything was fine in the lab. I had a great many more positive experiences when working alone than I did negative experiences. And that was my biggest mistake. I was not vulnerable to the normal state in the lab, rather I was vulnerable because of odd occurrences, many of which, I had no control. If either of the events described above had gone badly, it would have been hours before anyone would know that my safety was in jeopardy. No help would have come. By working alone, I was in fact, completely on my own.

As such, the LSI seminar made me realize that vulnerabilities are often related to the odd occurrences. Although researchers may roll their eyes when safety specialists assert that no one should work alone, safety specialists roll their eyes when we assert that oddities never happen. The reality of our safety specialists is that they work in a world where there is never a fire until there is a fire, and there is never an explosion until there is an explosion, and there is never a chemical spill until there is a chemical spill. And our safety specialists spend much of their time reminding us that odd things can happen and when they do they can be extremely hazardous. Their reality is, odd things happen even in research labs that are vigilant about safety. And, if we are all alone, there is no one to call for help and no one to back us up when those odd things result in injury.

So, how do we address the reality of crazy work hours associated with experimental demands and the rudimentary safety concern of never working alone? Simple, we should utilize our creativity and work ethic to address both. First, when possible, work in teams. If there is a late night experimental manipulation, work in pairs. If there is no one in your research team with whom you can partner, find a colleague down the hall that will be willing to team up with you for a late night experiment and then be willing to do the same for them. Often, colleagues that like to work the quiet late night hours would be happy to work late at their desk while you conduct your experiment. If you are a late-night, weekend or holiday worker, you know which colleagues tend to do the same. Simply, formalize some team work for the welfare of everyone. Second, if you have no choice about working alone, let the campus police know that you will be working late and alone and request that they wander by as they patrol campus. Or, if yours is a lab where personnel frequently work late, inform campus police so that they know to keep an eye the area in the late hours. Finally, work out a calling/texting system so that personnel that work alone are required to regularly (i.e., hourly) check-in with other members of your team. That way, if they fail to send their hourly text, someone is aware that something odd may be happening and perhaps they should call the lab or call for help. Standardize a system of response as part of your lab safety plan. Also, for those members of the team that are not great about remembering to check-in, you could institute a penalty system for false alarms. For example, personnel responsible for a check-in failure that leads to a false alarm are required to buy lunch/coffee for the inconvenienced party.

When you ponder the vulnerability of team members that need to work alone and your responsibility to their welfare, you become a little less cavalier about the hazards associated with working alone, especially with simple fixes can notably decrease vulnerability. However, working alone does not only make one vulnerable to safety hazards. In fact, working alone is also often related to poor and even unethical research decisions and has been a factor in case studies of research misconduct. I will address the vulnerability of ethics, responsibility and working alone in next month's contribution to Scholarly Messenger.

Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.