With the holidays, there’s a guarantee of rushing around which makes errors more likely to happen in the lab. Many people are typically off on vacation which adds another variable for accidents to happen.

Learn how to prevent accidents this season with this ‘near miss’ from our publication Incidents, Accidents, and Near Misses Volume 5:

It was the annual institute-wide holiday party and everyone in Charlie’s lab was excited to celebrate, relax, and have fun! It was the end of a long week and the weekend before many would be taking time off to go home for the holidays.

Charlie and most of his lab went just as the party was starting, but Ed stayed behind to finish up some of his work.

It wasn’t until Saturday morning that Charlie checked his email and noticed a flurry of messages from Ed the night before.

Ed is a graduate student in Dr. Brown’s lab and was finishing up some of his work when the rest of the lab left to attend the holiday party.

He was getting ready to develop an ELISA (Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay – an assay used to detect proteins in samples, which changes color according to how much is there) at his bench when he noticed that his bench-mate had left a plate sitting out on her bench.

Since she had already left for the party, he decided to be nice and dispose of it for her.

Knowing that most samples used in the lab are potential biohazards, he did as he does with most of his waste and flicked the plate into a bleach bucket. The bleach is at a high enough concentration to kill any biohazards that might be present in the sample, making it safe to dispose of.

In this case, the bleach had an unintended additional effect. Suddenly, the liquid in the bucket started turning a neon yellow color and giving off a gas with a strong smell to it.

Terrified at what was happening, Ed left the lab immediately and went to find help. He tried emailing his boss, hoping that it would pop up on his phone and he would see it, even though he was already at the holiday party. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

Luckily, he ran into Jessica from the lab next door and she came to help him assess the situation. Together, they decided the best course of action would be to put the bucket in the fume hood so that any remaining gas the solution was giving off would not leak into the rest of the room.

At this point, Ed also tried to email the Safety Officer to see what he recommended doing, but it appeared the officer was already at the party as well.

He decided the safest thing to do was to leave the bucket in the fume hood over the weekend.

When recounting the incident, there were several things that Ed realized he did not know about the situation, which made it dangerous.

First, he didn’t know what kind of chemical(s) were in the plate that he was disposing of since it was his lab mate’s and not his own. Even if he had known that she did an RNA extraction and that was the buffer in the plate, he might not have known this buffer would react with the bleach.

As is the case with many assays used in labs today, the buffer was part of a kit that is used to isolate RNA from biological samples. Most members of the lab who use the kit are not aware of the contents of each buffer. They know what each buffer does rather than what it’s composed of.

For that reason, Ed and many others in the lab wouldn’t be aware that this chemical reaction could occur. This incident emphasized the importance of reading the safety data sheet (SDS) that comes with chemicals, even when the chemical is a pre-made buffer.

It is important to know the hazards of the chemicals you are working with, and how they may react with other chemicals, even if the chemical is not harmful on its own. The lab had an important discussion on the incident and the chemical reaction that occurred.

They decided to make sure to diligently label any containers with chemicals from now on—even 96 well plates—and to not dispose of anything that is not properly labeled or that they don’t know what it is. Always read the SDS associated with chemicals, especially when they come as part of a kit.

If you don’t know what’s in them, you may not be taking the proper safety precautions.

This blog is an excerpt from our Incidents, Accidents, and Near Misses Volume 5. For more information on our offerings, check out our service pages here. To receive the full edition of Incidents, Accidents, and Near Misses Volume 5, join our newsletter here.