Ask A Scientist
What do you do if something goes wrong in the lab during an experiment?
Asked by: Kym LaBoudy
School: West Middle School, Binghamton School District
Answer from Peter Huang, PhD
Education: Bachelor of Arts in Physics, Cornell University; Doctor of Philosophy in Engineering, Brown University.
Research Areas: Fluid Mechanics, Photonics, Nanotechnology, Cancer
As an experimental scientist for more than 10 years, I can honestly say that something always goes wrong, or should I say unexpected, during an experiment. That’s what makes experiments exciting for scientists. While pleasant surprises, such as a new phenomenon that nobody expects to observe, are welcome and may lead to breakthrough technologies, damaging or injury-causing events may also occur and should be avoided. How do we do that? Through careful planning, proper safety training and facility inspection, and establishing an emergency management procedure.
Every good experiment requires careful planning. A good scientist needs to carefully think through what can happen during each step of the experiment. What are the risks involved and can something happen that will cause injuries or property damages? Is there a safer way to do this experiment? If a scientist is not confident about the safety of the experiment, he or she should not perform the experiment and must seek the help of another expert.
Another preventive measure is proper safety training and facility inspection. The government and research institutions (such as Binghamton University) require these every year. Scientists must be recertified for safe experimental practices while laboratories are periodically inspected for safety. These will significantly reduce the possibility of disastrous events. For example, well-trained scientists with proper containment facility will ensure that no genetically modified spider can escape and bite Peter Parker, and turn him into Spider-Man. The most basic laboratory safety practice is to wear adequate protective equipment, such as gloves and goggles, in the lab at all times. They are important because they protect scientists from potential injuries to their hands or eyes in the event that something goes wrong.
The last line of defense is an emergency procedure to follow in case of accidents. The first thing that a scientist should do is to stay calm and seek help by dialing 911 (yes, even Binghamton University wants us to dial 911). The emergency responders will decide on the best action to bring the situation under control.
In the end, scientists must exercise common sense. Performing an experiment on oneself, such as what Dr. Bruce Banner did to himself, to become the Hulk during a failed radiation experiment, can be detrimental. Fortunately, most scientists adhere to the safety rules and follow them rigorously, and we have all been benefiting from their diligent work and creation of technology.