Is Dangerous Testing Worth the Risk?

Young boy experimenting with chemicals

If you were privy to PSI’s “all company” emails, you would inevitably come across the occasional alert that some form of dangerous testing would be happening in our lab on a given day, at a given time. Sometimes, these alerts are meant as a warning for a certain demographic (for example, pregnant women). Most often, however, these are warnings to everyone in the company.

Why is it necessary to perform dangerous tests in our laboratory? This is the question we brought to PSI’s Safety Manager, Dr. Alan Sentman, in the hopes that he could shed some light on the subject.

“A lot of time, the test itself isn’t dangerous,” said Alan, “the material to be tested is, which makes the whole process dangerous.”

Certain plastics, known as urethanes, are made with isocyanates, which can pose a severe health hazard. Factories responsible for producing these urethanes maintain strong precautions for the safety of their workers. Occasionally, the raw materials used in producing urethanes need to be tested and, in those cases, the PSI lab must take similar precautions.

Dr. Sentman explained that urethanes are also used in certain types of insulation used on building sites. “You can’t work on them in a controlled environment, in which case the workers have to wear full contained suits with air supply.”

It is not uncommon to see our team utilizing dangerous chemicals, such as hexafluoroisopropanol (HFIP), in testing polymers. HFIP, a common solvent for polymers, can cause serious skin, lung, and eye damage if exposure occurs.

Safety is extremely important to us at PSI. When the materials that our team of scientists are testing prove to be hazardous in any way, we make sure all the necessary precautions are in place. Chief among these is the use of personal protection equipment (PPE). This includes, but is not limited to, lab coats, gloves, and safety glasses.

Accidents happen. They are unintended and unpredictable. “If you are always wearing personal protection equipment in the lab, you will be wearing it when you need it—because something unexpected is bound to happen.” A sound rule of thumb from Dr. Sentman.

Sometimes, however, the materials being tested can be completely benign. There are instances when the “test itself creates a hazardous environment, such as heating flammable materials in sealed containers, but the considerations are the same,” He said.

Two years ago, Dr. Sentman was willing to give us an EGGsample of how a sealed object under pressure can become an EGGsplosive danger. Using a peeled, hard-boiled egg and a microwave, he was able to show just how dangerous even something as harmless as an egg can be when handled carelessly.

Is the risk worth the reward? “Ultimately,” said Dr. Sentman, “we look at the precautions needed to keep workers safe if something goes wrong, determine the cost of working in that manner and make the decision based on that. I’ve said yes to work which might destroy an oven if it went badly, but we will refuse work which has a strong chance of injuring an employee.” The bottom line is that the safety of everyone in and out of the lab is most important.

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