Innovation isn't always the safest field. Here's what to consider within incident reporting. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Exploding refrigerator? Chemical splash on the face? These are not just personally devastating lab incidents, they are also expensive.

For instance, awhile back, the University of Hawaii faced a total $115,500 fine for 15 workplace safety violations after a laboratory explosion where a postdoctoral researcher lost one of her arms. Beryl Lieff Benderly wrote in Science that the accident “resulted from a static electricity charge that ignited a tank containing a highly flammable, pressurized mixture of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide.”

Referred to as “incidents,” they are defined by University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) in this way: “An incident is an event that results in or causes injury or damage to someone or something, or an event that has the potential to result in or cause injury or damage.”

But when asked which incidents are reportable, the answer is uniform across all research universities: all incidents must be reported.

Incidentally...

There are websites dedicated to laboratory accidents, like this one at UCSB. It lists the two accidents mentioned in this blog’s first sentence. University of Michigan Environment, Health and Safety’s website said, “Being safe at the University of Michigan requires a positive safety culture where we learn from mistakes and near-misses in order to improve and prevent future occurrences. It is vital that you report all ‘incidents’ including near- misses, injuries resulting from your activities, non-compliance with safety and environmental rules, and general unsafe work conditions so that we can learn and grow.” Northwestern University’s website on Research Health and Safety said, “Always report ‘near-misses’ just as you would an incident that causes injury or harm to property.”

Near-missing

You may be asking, what constitutes a “near-miss”? At Western Kentucky University, for example: “A laboratory “near-miss” is an unplanned situation, where with minor changes to time or setting, could have easily resulted in damage or injury to person or property. A near-miss is characterized as having little, if any, immediate impact on individuals, processes, or the environment, but provides insight into accidents that could happen.” Laboratory near misses may cause chemical spills, explosions and bodily injury, but can be treated with first-aid.

Form finding

Most universities have a form to fill out if there is an incident that could have led to a severe injury or death. The form asks for a description of the incident and even asks, in some instances, “Why did it happen?” These should be made out comprehensively and quickly.

OSHA

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a reporting process, aside from what each university requires. They need information when you call. The OSHA website states: “Be prepared to supply: Business name; names of employees affected; location and time of the incident, brief description of the incident; contact person and phone number.”

There are even time limits for how quickly one must report a severe injury that requires an in-patient hospitalization, amputation or loss of an eye (24) or fatality.

(It’s eight hours.)

The fact that “losing an eye” is one of just four reasons to contact OSHA, you may wonder, “Are a lot of people blinded in the lab, often?” Also, “Where can I buy safety goggles?”

“Are a lot of people blinded in the lab, often? Also, where can I buy safety goggles?”

The big idea

There are many websites which detail lab disasters. Some are cautionary tales, some are avoidable situations. Just be sure to wear your Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and be safe out there. Or rather, in there.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

Here's some advice for going green in the lab. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Houston expert shares tips for shrinking your lab's carbon footprint

houston voices

Trying to make your lab greener? Here are some practical examples of how to reduce your lab's carbon footprint and increase sustainability. Since China stopped accepting certain types of plastic waste from the United States and Europe in 2017, the need to dispose of hundreds of single-use plastic vials and other materials (per researcher, each year!) has created an avalanche of waste.

The "single use" problem

COVID-19 has led to even more single-use plastics in labs – and in our everyday lives. The sheer number of gloves, testing kits and even masks we throw away is incredible. "The majority of masks are manufactured from long-lasting plastic materials, and if discarded can persist in the environment for decades to hundreds of years," wrote authors from the University of Portsmouth at the Conversation.com.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Labs are full of other single-use plastics such as pipette tips, weighing boats, tubes, flasks, reagent bottles, cuvettes, and more. 'Reduce, reuse and recycle' is a fine mantra, but how do researchers cut down on plastics when the sterility of equipment is a concern?

According to the UK's Chemical and Engineering News magazine, "Different users have optimized washing protocols to get pipette tips clean enough for different lab techniques, including mass spectrometry or toxicology and immunology assays.

Earlier this year, for example, researchers at the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences found their washed pipettes gave the same results as new tips for preparing small-interfering-RNA screening libraries." Customers of Grenova, a lab equipment firm, have reported that some tips can reused 25-40 times.

Baby it's cold

In Nature, Jyoti Madhusoodanan wrote: "Scientists are increasingly aware of the disproportionate environmental footprint of their research. Academic research facilities consume three to six times as much energy as commercial buildings, much of that due to refrigeration and ventilation systems." The has led some third-party "green companies" employed by labs to hold entire conferences around ultra-low temperature freezers. In a feature advertisement in Nature Portfolio, a statistic read: "An average Ultra-Low Temperature freezer consumes as much energy as a single-family home (~20 kWh/day)."

Help for scientists

There are non-profits that will help you mitigate the amount of waste produced by your lab. One of these, My Green Lab, said on its website: "Run 'for scientists, by scientists,' we leverage our credibility and track record to develop standards, oversee their implementation, and inspire the many behavioral changes that are needed throughout the scientific community."

And it offers a free training course for "ambassadors" – those who would like to guide their lab toward sustainable practices.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Growing Houston-based drone software company snags government contract

ready for liftoff

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Report: Houstonians lose days-worth of time each year due to rush hour

not in the fast lane

Traffic is a part of life in Houston. But a new study quantifies just how much time the average Bayou City dweller spends sitting in rush hour gridlock every year—and the results are eye opening.

According to a study released this month by CoPilot, Houstonians lose nearly four days of time each year due to rush hour commuting.

The report found that rush hour extends Houstonians' commute by an extra 22 minutes per day. Annually, that totaled an additional 91.6 hours commuting due to rush hour.

This earned the Houston area (including the Woodlands and Sugar Land) a No. 8 spot on CoPilot's list of cities where commuters lose the most time to rush hour.

Evening commutes saw the highest increase in time in Houston, with the average commuter spending 14 additional minutes on roadways due to rush hour. Morning rush hour in Houston added about eight minutes to commuters' daily drives.

Houston was the only Texas city to make CoPilot's list of the top 15 cities that lost the most time to rush hour traffic. New York drivers lost the most time to rush hour, which adds about 32 minutes to daily commutes and 132 hours a year, according to the report. Los Angeles drivers lost the second-most time, followed by urban Honolulu, Miami, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Birmingham, Alabama.

The report found that drivers in Houston spend about eight more minutes commuting during rush hour than the average driver in the county. That totals to about 30 more hours per year than the average U.S. driver.

Commute times have been dropping nationally, reaching a low of 25.6 minutes in 2021 compared to 27.6 minutes in 2019, as more workers have transitioned to hybrid schedules or working from home, according to CoPilot

In 2020, Houston drivers even witnessed a 33 percent drop in traffic compared to in 2019, according to a study from Rice.

Still, Houston roadways are consistently ranked among the most congested in the country. Last year, a similar study found that the typical Houston driver wasted 46 hours due to traffic congestion.

Portions of the 610 West Loop are notorious for being ranked as the state's most congested roadways, and other stretches of roads are known as some of the worst bottlenecks in Texas.