Thursday, 18 May 2017

Risk Assessment

At The Institute, the culmination of  four years of training and knowledge acquisition is the student's final year research project. I've been supervising a lot of these over the last tuthree years far more than anyone else on the Faculty which is all good fun because it means that a lot (about a third) of my billable hours are given over this task - at which I am competent - rather than water chemistry which I taught by the seat of my pants. Two years ago, the new head of department HoD decided, quite rightly, that each project report should include a Risk Assessment in which potential hazards were identified. Risk Assessment is now a science in itself but the basic idea is to use your imagination and estimate a) the likelihood and b) the severity of each event: the product of these two numbers is the Risk and you want to work hardest to avoid the riskiest items on your list. One of the reasons I get a lot of project students is because my advent on the campus coincided with an up-blip in student numbers, and the final year cohort slipped over the magic number of N=36.

Timetabling is a nightmare for our redoubtable HoD because the teaching staff must get exactly 17 or 19 contact hours each week, the students have and even fatter time-table [24-27 hours in class] and there are a finite number of rooms all at > 90% capacity between 9am and 5pm M-F.  Lecture hours are easy enough to accommodate but laboratories are, for health and safety reasons, limited to 18 seats, and only one lab is equipped to service research projects. In the leisurely days of yore [2013 CE], there were only 16ish final year students and we ran things so that before Christmas they would carry out a Literature Review of their research topic, so that in the New Year they were fully informed to get down and dirty at the lab bench. 2014 doubled the numbers and we finagled it so that half the kids did their project in the old way and the other half, somewhat absurdly, did the lab work first and revealed its context in the library after Christmas. When numbers climbed above 2 x 18, even that bodge wouldn't work, so my appearance was somewhat providential. Because I am a danger to myself and others in the lab, I've spend the last 30 years doing research on computers analysing DNA and protein sequences to reveal the pattern and process of evolution.

At the end of Third Year, I shill for my 'bioinformatic' projects by telling the students war -stories about a) my 3 big ideas in a lifetime of science b) what the best their predecessors have achieved in their projects. For logistics, I have to take at least the number of students that are surplus to 2x18 = 36 and the computer room has 18-20 seats [any 2 of the computers are likely banjaxed on any one day) so I could have 18. Last year it was N=14 this year N=11. It is very busy: I scoot about the room talking to someone pretty much for the full 2 hours of each class.

Even these students have to carry out a Risk Assessment like everyone else but the hazards are not quite on par with resting your arm in a puddle of sulphuric acid, or spraying yourself with hot sticky agar fresh from the autoclave, or flicking radioactive phosphorous into your eye. Accordingly, the risk assessments are filled with
  • tripping over bag
  • eye-strain
  • repetitive strain injury
  • headache
As all things are relative, these hazards get parity of esteem with the more serious risks of chemical and physical injury in the laboratory.  Oh oh oh, I feel a research project coming on: do students in the bioinformatics group perceive their risks as being milder than those they'd meet pouring Petri dishes or flipping eppendorfs: a t-test should do it.

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