We’re proud that we have launched the 7th edition of our annual publication: Incidents, Accidents, and Near Misses! Thank you to everyone that contributed stories.
I was starting my new job! It was a position as a scientist in a really cool biotech startup in Boston. This was a fantastic opportunity for someone fresh out of grad school, and the research was up my alley, so it was beyond exciting. However, I was a bit less enthusiastic about going through safety training during orientation. Regardless, I buckled down and did my best to pay attention and try to get something from it.
Our safety officer Veronica arrived and got started. To my surprise, her presentation was really engaging. She used questions and games to keep everyone involved, and I learned a lot. After the class ended, a couple of us chitchatted with Veronica while finishing the box of coffee the company provided. I decided to ask Veronica why she got into safety as a career, and she shared her story.
Veronica’s first job after college was at a company that helped laboratories clean out their facilities when they closed down or relocated. The role was short-term, but she figured it would be a valuable experience before settling down in a full-time lab position. Besides, she enjoyed traveling and seeing all the different labs.
One assignment sent her to a nearby company where the research and development team had really outgrown their lab space. The researchers were excited about moving into larger lab space but getting them to focus on organizing their benches before the move was like herding cats. The lion’s share of the work was pushed back until the absolute last moment.
When Veronica and her team showed up the first morning of the job, they found more than they had bargained for. The benches were still cluttered with bottles, boxes, and supplies. Whatever organization they had beforehand was thrown into disarray by the last-minute packing and cleaning efforts. Veronica resigned herself to a long week, put a podcast on her Bluetooth speaker, and got to work. “Well, let’s see how far we can get,” she said, half to the group and half to herself.
A couple of hours in, Veronica felt that neither she nor her co-workers were making enough progress, so she tried to push herself a little faster. Unfortunately, the next bench she started breaking down had a shelf above it that was filled to the brim with bottles. Knowing that pulling the bottles would spread dust onto the counters, she decided to tackle the shelf first.
The shelf was high up, so Veronica pulled over a step stool so that she could reach. Unfortunately, it was a few inches too low for her to easily grab the bottles. She put her right knee up on the lab bench to hoist herself up, using her right hand against the shelf to steady herself. Once she got steady, she reached up and grabbed the first bottle. Unbeknownst to her, she accidentally knocked the adjacent bottle in the process.
The bottle tipped over the edge and fell off the shelf, spilling its contents all over her right thigh that was resting on the bench. The lid was cracked from age and fell off during the fall. The bottle didn’t break when it landed on the bench, but a patch of her pants larger than a dinner plate was still drenched in the bottle’s contents.
Immediately, she felt a searing pain shoot across her leg. Veronica screamed and jumped off the counter, panicking as her co-workers tried to figure out what was going on.
There was a safety shower in the lab, but Veronica didn’t want to take off her pants in front of her co-workers. So instead, she ran down the hallway looking for a bathroom. Luckily, there was one just around the corner. She got out of her pants and started furiously rinsing off her visibly chemically burned leg. Her co-workers rushed to follow her. One woman on the team went into the bathroom to tend to her. At the same time, another colleague called 911, following up with occupational health shortly after that.
The burn was severe. Veronica underwent months of treatment, including several skin grafts. Overall, it took her six months before she could expose the skin to sunlight without pain. The accident changed her life; lots of the seemingly minor details of her job became incredibly important. Things like checking bottle lids for damage, not climbing on benches, and avoiding working up high without an appropriate step stool were permanently ingrained in her head. Had her leg not been on the counter, she likely would have had much less of the chemical spilled on her. Instead, it would have primarily splashed on the counter.
Moreover, this event inspired a deep interest in occupational safety for Veronica. She wanted to make sure something like this didn’t happen to anyone else, so she dedicated her career to it. Her passion for the field and the sobering tale of the accident stuck with me, and I’ve tried to incorporate what I’ve learned from then on.
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