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The issues of safety information in open notebook science

21 September 2007 14 Comments

Research in most places today is done under more or less rigorous safety regimes. A general approach which I believe is fairly universal is that any action should in principle be ‘Risk Assessed’. For many everyday procedures such an assessment may not need to be written down but it is general practise in the UK that there needs to be a paper trail that demonstrates that such risk assessments are carried out. In practise this means that there is generally for any given laboratory procedure a document of some form in which the risks are assessed. This may in many cases be a tick box list or pro forma document.

In addition in the UK there is an obligation to consider whether a particular substance requires a specific assessment under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations. Again these are usually based on a pro forma template. Most researchers will have a folder containing both risk and COSHH assessments, or these may be held in a laboratory wide folder depending on local practise.

This month we have an extra person in working on our netural drift project which is being recorded in this blog. She felt that as the blog is the lab book it must contain these risk assessments and you can see these here. I have no problem with this and indeed it seems like a good idea to have this information available. So from the perspective of the group and electronic notebook practise this is good. 

From the open notebook perspective, if we are working towards applying the slogan of ‘No insider information’ this must necessarily include safety information. If we say how to do an experiment this arguably should include not just the procedure but other details: how do you work, what protection might you need, how should waste be disposed of. Many journals now request that any specific safety issues should be flagged in methods sections of papers.

But there is a flip side here. I am happy that our safety documentation is robust and works so I am not worried about ‘the inspectors’ seeing it on the web. Indeed I feel that having your work exposed is a good way of raising standards. It can be a bit bracing but if you’re not prepared to have the details of methodology public then should you be publishing it? Equally if you are worried about a bit of scrutiny of your safety documentation then should your lab really be operating at all?

However, what if someone takes this safety information, uses it, and still manages to injure themselves? What if the regulations in the UK are different, say, from those in the US. There is the potential for legal exposure here and this is the reason why most safety information from a chemical supplier says that anyone handling the compound in questions should use ventilators and full body protection (including for table salt and sugar). There is very little useful safety information available because anything that suggests that a particular compound is ‘safe’ creates legal exposure. We could put a disclaimer on our safety information to try and avoid this but that seems a little like cheating. Being ‘open’ means being open about as much as possible. I feel on balance that we should include it but there is a good argument we should leave it out or hide it for our own protection.


  • That is a good point to remind students to record potentially dangerous events (such as exothermic reactions) in the log portion of their experiments. They should be doing that anyway if properly trained.

    But beyond that, most of the compounds we make are new, and we don’t know much about other dangers such as toxicity. I don’t recall having to do that for any organic chemistry journal, unless it is a well-known class of problematic chemicals (like azides for explosive hazard).

  • That is a good point to remind students to record potentially dangerous events (such as exothermic reactions) in the log portion of their experiments. They should be doing that anyway if properly trained.

    But beyond that, most of the compounds we make are new, and we don’t know much about other dangers such as toxicity. I don’t recall having to do that for any organic chemistry journal, unless it is a well-known class of problematic chemicals (like azides for explosive hazard).

  • I’ve seen it a few times in JOC but mainly in published protocols such as Nature Methods protocols and the associated Cold Spring Harbour site.

    Most of what we are doing involves using a standard set of reagents, some of which are fairly toxic, to make a standard set of samples (proteins, DNA), so again this is a difference to synthetic chemistry. We would do a COSHH assessment though for toluene, or any strong acid, say TFA, and this would be included in the risk assessment for a protocol.

  • I’ve seen it a few times in JOC but mainly in published protocols such as Nature Methods protocols and the associated Cold Spring Harbour site.

    Most of what we are doing involves using a standard set of reagents, some of which are fairly toxic, to make a standard set of samples (proteins, DNA), so again this is a difference to synthetic chemistry. We would do a COSHH assessment though for toluene, or any strong acid, say TFA, and this would be included in the risk assessment for a protocol.

  • Maybe a catch all disclaimer somewhere on the site could be a good idea just in case eventually the idea of a home grown lab or biohacking picks up.

  • Maybe a catch all disclaimer somewhere on the site could be a good idea just in case eventually the idea of a home grown lab or biohacking picks up.

  • The problem with a catch all disclaimer is that people might not come in that way. I need to go back to this because we thought about putting up disclaimers but it doesn’t seem to have been done. Strictly speaking we may also need to worry about ‘no warranty’ clauses as well…[sigh]

  • The problem with a catch all disclaimer is that people might not come in that way. I need to go back to this because we thought about putting up disclaimers but it doesn’t seem to have been done. Strictly speaking we may also need to worry about ‘no warranty’ clauses as well…[sigh]

  • Jenny Hale

    I’ve just found these discussions whilst searching for the blog from home and felt that I needed to comment.
    I haven’t put in any disclaimers on the blog safety as I didn’t know where the best place to put them was.
    Where would everyone suggest?
    Would it be better to put a disclaimer at the top of each safety post or a “catch-all” note type post to go into the safety section? I now have the added issue of not being able to edit the safety posts that I didn’t make, but I’m happy to put in a disclaimer post of some kind if it would make people feel safer.

  • Jenny Hale

    I’ve just found these discussions whilst searching for the blog from home and felt that I needed to comment.
    I haven’t put in any disclaimers on the blog safety as I didn’t know where the best place to put them was.
    Where would everyone suggest?
    Would it be better to put a disclaimer at the top of each safety post or a “catch-all” note type post to go into the safety section? I now have the added issue of not being able to edit the safety posts that I didn’t make, but I’m happy to put in a disclaimer post of some kind if it would make people feel safer.

  • Hmmm editing of other people’s posts seems to be becoming an issue. I think on balance we should add a disclaimer to each safety post. Pedro’s suggestion of a catch all disclaimer is fine for situations where people will feel obliged to check elsewhere (e.g. licensing or copyright) but I think for this it may be appropriate to have one at the top of each safety post. Put it in the Risk assessment and COSHH templates perhaps?

  • Hmmm editing of other people’s posts seems to be becoming an issue. I think on balance we should add a disclaimer to each safety post. Pedro’s suggestion of a catch all disclaimer is fine for situations where people will feel obliged to check elsewhere (e.g. licensing or copyright) but I think for this it may be appropriate to have one at the top of each safety post. Put it in the Risk assessment and COSHH templates perhaps?

  • Jenny Hale

    What kind of wording would you feel to be appropriate as a disclaimer. I just went to write one into the templates and then really struggled as to what the wording should be.

  • Jenny Hale

    What kind of wording would you feel to be appropriate as a disclaimer. I just went to write one into the templates and then really struggled as to what the wording should be.