A new ruling has come down from on high to our institute, and to many other institutes across the UK who are funded by a particular body which shall remain nameless, which can be summarized as follows:

“Safety goggles must be worn *at all times* in the lab, no matter what you happen to be doing.”

We’re not talking safety glasses, either, with their access to peripheral vision; as I understand it, we all need to wear the sort of goggles that form a tight (hot, sweaty) seal around the face. *All* the time. And no, prescription spectacles are also not sufficient: we either need to wear goggles over them, or order prescription goggles.

Now I am by nature a very cautious person. When I am doing something dangerous, I take the appropriate precautions. If I’m working with caustics, I wear a lab coat, goggles and gloves, and work inside a fume cupboard. If I’m doing with something that might imperil my eyes — such as breaking open a glass ampule or using liquid nitrogen, I wear my goggles and/or a face-shield. I even wear goggles when I’m scraping the minus eighty freezer, because I’ve observed that flying shards of ice can be a real problem, or when pushing a comb into a molten acrylamide gel, because sometimes it splashes.

But, ladies and gentlemen, I must confess that I do not wear safety goggles during the following lab procedures:

1. Sitting at my bench labeling empty plastic tubes with a marker pen (something we molecular types spend an inordinate amount of time doing)

2. Looking down the microscope – about 20% of my time in the lab (ever tried looking down oculars with goggles?)

3. Performing tissue culture with non-hazardous cell lines

4. Performing molecular biology with non-hazardous enzymes and buffers

5. Plating non-hazardous bacteria, or pouring the plates they grow on.

{and a hundred other minor daily tasks}

Well, no longer. Now I’m to be saddled with uncomfortable headgear — and I’ve yet to be convinced that this situation won’t be, if anything, more dangerous because of restricted vision.

You might argue that I’ve been in labs for more than twenty years, so I know what is and is not dangerous, but a newbie wouldn’t have a clue. You’d be right — if it weren’t for the fact that we recently completed a time-consuming, mind-numbingly boring risk assessment exercise, in which I had to type up *every* type of experiment we do in the lab, what is harmful about each step, and what safety gear is required. When goggles were essential, it was noted down, and all new people in the lab are required to familiarize themselves with these documents. So if people are doing what they ought, even the rawest PhD students should know the score — and of course all newbies are supervised by  experienced scientists, who should be imparting their wisdom about safety as well.

We are told that the rationale for the new ruling was an increase in eye injuries. I haven’t seen the numbers, though. The risk assessment exercise was only recently completed: was the increase before this? Were the injured people flouting the rules and not wearing eye protection when they knew they should? (And would these people be the same sorts to ignore the new rulings?) Were the number of injuries more than other mishaps that can occur at the workplace — stumbling down stairs, for example, or banging heads on furniture, or cuts? Did the injuries mostly occur in one building; was there a history there of poor training? I really would like to see the stats.

But meanwhile, it seems we really are stuck with the new rule. I’d be happy to sign a form absolving my employers of any liability were my eyes injured by a freak incident incurred while performing something nonhazardous in a lab and not wearing goggles, but somehow, I fear that’s not an option. We are no longer allowed to take personal responsibility for anything.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to the kitchen and use sharp knives to make breakfast. Pity I left my goggles in the lab.