Monday 24 October 2016


I have a terror of autoclaves which is only surpassed by my fear of chain-saws. Autoclaves are big lumpy pressure-cookers about 50cm tall and 30cm in diameter. They are full of extremely hot water under pressure which is sterilising 500ml bottles of molten agar for pouring into Petri dishes. The hot water is dangerous, the live steam is worse and molten agar, because it is sticky, is worst of all. We've had 2 incidents involving hot agar under pressure in the last 18 months and that's two too many. The splatter from the first event is still decorating the ceiling in one of the labs. In the other case, the student took one for the team and absorbed most of the boiling gloop on his safety-glass, face and lab coat. In both cases, these were students who had been on campus for several years and had been taught 'autoclave safety' at least once a year. That must have been a case of "I taught them but they didn't learn" which is the antithesis of teaching. This is the sort of thing that cannot be taught in theory, you need to get down and dirty with the beast [under supervision, of course] and go through the protocol many times until it becomes embedded.

I've resolved to make this sort of practical training an explicit part of my teaching in Food and Fermentation Microbiology aka F&F this year. I have one lab section and we're going to learn a bunch of microbiology but good practice is going to be what sticks. Each week, I appoint two pairs of students as Autoclave Liaison Officers ALOs, who have to check each cooker over, make sure the seals are fitted, make sure there is sufficient water, switch it on, load it up, lock it down, read the pressure gauge and keep track of the time. 4 out of 17 students over 20 weeks will mean that everyone will be safe, competent and confident by next April.

Last Thursday, we were in the middle of setting up and loading the autoclaves when the alarm went off on the fridge round the corner. It also seemed as if the autoclaves were less hissy and it quickly transpired that the whole circuit had tripped its switch. Apparently [nobody told us] if you switch on more than 2 of the 4 available autoclaves, then the load is too much for the circuit. ANNyway, I went off and located a technician to tell me all this, switch off one of the autoclaves and push the trip-switch home. Except that the trip-switch is in the corner diametrically opposite the autoclave banks: 3.5 metres up in a corner above a fume hood. Techie went to fetch a ladder and was able just to reach the door of the fuse-board but was unable to open it because it was hinged the wrong way. Because he's a can-do sort of bloke, Techie hopped of the teeter-top rung of the ladder, sat on the fume-hood and flipped the switch.  The fridge-alarm ceased, the autoclaves started to heat up again and education could continue.

That would could have been the end of the story, but there is a sequel. As I was leaving, I bumped into one of the other technicians and gave a brief report of events: just so everyone knew not to run three autoclaves at once. Well, it turned out the no technician is qualified to use a ladder on the premises, and nor am I. Indeed there is only one ladder that is approved for use in The Institute and only a handful of people have been trained to use it and so are covered by the berluddy insurance. If you can't locate the ladder and one of the ladder-effectives to 'operate' it, you may sit on your thumbs with 18 students and imagine what it's like to be a scientist. At least that is a rosier prospect than imagining what it's like having the wilfully obstructive mind of a health & safety manager. And while we are in harrrumph mode, let's ask who designed, installed and approved [that's three separate 'qualified' people] a grossly under-powered electricity circuit . . . and who found the least accessible place imaginable for the fuse-box?

1 comment:

  1. If you were in the Army (or, more correctly, the Air Force) I feel this could be titled "Catch 22". A "Ladder Operative"? What madness is this!