In the first lab I worked in I had a colleague that taught me an introduction to basic lab health and safety. I was lucky to have someone go through it all with me as most people I know started in labs with a slap on the back and a shouted “good luck” from their rapidly retreating supervisor.

My colleague however was a lot more present and a lot more proactive in instilling two key ideas about touching things in the lab.

Firstly, the lab is full of things that when touched might stick to you and cause bad stuff to happen. For me at the time this was unscreened human blood samples, but it’s also been skin burning powders and on one occasion baby mutating orange liquid.

Touching these things is bad, but so is transferring them other places. You don’t have to put your hand into a jar of goop to get goop on you. Sometimes the goop is on other things in the lab that you don’t realise and when you touch those then you get gooped (a technical H&S term).

Very memorably as my colleague was trying to teach this lesson to a new researcher my boss walked though the lab carrying a cup of tea and sat down next to the fridge full of bloods and began cutting his nails… my colleague was a good teacher but some people are resistant to teaching.

Secondly, sometimes the goop isn’t bad for you but you are bad for the goop. Humans are big squishy sacks of biology and try as we might we are constantly producing oils, sweat and various bacteria. Touching things in the lab means that we share all these oils, sweat and various bacteria with the lab things. Often the lab things would rather we didn’t.

During the first three months of working in my first lab I wasn’t as good at listening to my colleague as I perhaps could have been. At one point in the production of our test strips I had to put them into bags and for this bit I used my bare hands… Turns out on my bare hands was a protein A producing bacterium that completely screwed up all the tests. It was a very expensive lack of listening-to-my-colleague.

The extension to this is also that just because you’re wearing gloves doesn’t mean you can’t accidentally get your oils and sweat on things. Because even when wearing gloves people do love to touch their faces. In fact while reading this right now I am betting several people just reached up and absentmindedly scratched their faces.

In the real world right now doing this leads to catching unpleasant respiratory diseases such as COVID-19. In the lab it might lead to you scratching a fast growing hole in your face or rubbing sweat on a very expensive microchip.

So for the good of your lab, and the good of your actual science, stop touching stuff that doesn’t need touching (including yourself!). Wear gloves and if they’re not clean change them, they are not exactly expensive! And finally wash you hands, wash them a lot and use actual soap as oddly enough making your hands damp doesn’t count as washing.

Pretty quickly doing all that becomes second nature but sadly you do need to make a bit of a an effort at the start, but it’s worth it. Also you’ll need to invest in some really good hand moisturiser because wow does wearing gloves and washing your hands 50 times a day do a good job of turning your skin into something that looks like tiger bread.


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