The right A-levels give you access to university, but they don’t prepare you for the hazards of working in a lab. That’s why some 1000 new students and staff of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences received safety training this week.
The training began with a one-hour lecture on safety. Then it was time to get out the fire extinguishers, under the supervision of members of the Faculty’s emergency response team, and tackle a burning fume cupboard, fluid fires and a an ancient computer monitor on fire.. This ended with instructions on how to handle liquid nitrogen.
First-year students Renate and Lars put out a fume cupboard fire. Was it useful? ‘Well, if it was for real, I would probably panic, which I didn’t do now. Well, only a bit, because I had to go first,’ Renate smiles. ‘But if you hadn’t done this exercise, you would panic more,’ Lars adds.
They also sat through the theory. ‘Yeah, which extinguishers to use for which type of fire.’ Are they going to remember all this information? ‘For now, yes.’
Liquid nitrogen is cold, very cold. So cold it can cause burns. On the skin it might feel like pinpricks, but if you get the stuff in your eye, it will cause serious damage. Wearing gloves and safety goggles, the students take turns to fill a small insulated canister from a big container of liquid nitrogen.
‘Always wear a glove when handling the nozzle,’ the instructor says. ‘If you don’t, you’ll be frozen to it for the rest of the day.’ Earlier this week, students came to the demonstration in flip-flops because of the hot weather. ‘Not very sensible footwear for this sort of work,’ he comments, because the canister is standing on the ground. Any drops can land on your bare feet.
The students do four different exercises in groups of about fifteen. ‘If someone doesn’t manage to put out the fire, go and help him,’ one of the instructors says. Not without reason, it turns out, because only a few participants manage to put out the flames. In some cases, the extinguisher is empty before the fire is out.
A student picks up an extinguisher to tackle the flames. ‘Hey, you forgot to pull out the safety pin!’ Each extinguisher has a safety pin. If you don’t remove it, the extinguisher won’t work.
One student is a bit slow getting to the disaster area, so the instructor yells ‘Help! Fire!’ The student springs into action and rushes towards the flames. But now she’s too fast. ‘You walked straight at the fire, but we explained you have to tackle it from the side. So don’t let yourself be rushed. And take care with all that long, loose hair!’
The many fire extinguishers that are emptied during the exercises come from University buildings. ‘They expire in October, and we would have had to change them then anyway. This way they still serve a purpose,’ explains Jack Jager, head of the emergency response team (and fireman). His team is devoting the whole week to the training.
So is the training useful? Well, in the US this week criminal charges were pressed against a chemistry professor because a technician died in one of his labs. She was severely burnt when a flammable substance in her fume cupboard ignited. According to a report, there were all sorts of safety issues at this university. At least the 1000 new students and staff at Groningen now have some idea of what to do when an accident happens.
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