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Beware the Lab Blaze


High-throughput instruments are a ticket to high-throughput damage if you overload circuits and ignore safety guidelines


Preparing for a column on fires in genomics labs, I called around and found John Dembishank, a building plan reviewer with Connecticut’s fire marshal who oversees safety in the state’s public and private labs. I told him I was looking to raise fire safety awareness, give readers a “Let’s be careful out there” pep talk. “No alarms,” I said. “Wrong,” he replied. “We maybe need to be alarmist. It’s more dangerous than people think.”

Indeed, recent fires at genomics labs at Princeton University and the University of California at Santa Cruz have highlighted the damage potential in these rooms crowded with power-hungry sequencers and other automated machines.

Dembishank estimates that each workday at least one lab in the US experiences a serious fire. Most go unreported. The highly destructive fires at Princeton’s gene sequencing facility and in UCSC’s gene expression research lab don’t surprise him. “There are problems all over the place,” he says. “There are a lot of local fire marshals and facility managers who are not versed in [relevant] fire safety codes.” Because of the cost constraints of working under grant funding, he adds, “some of the biggest violators are the universities.”

Genomics labs pose a particular danger with their combination of hazardous chemicals alongside large-scale machinery. This makes for a problematic sum greater than its parts, especially with no single standalone resource to guide design for lab safety.

The potential for fundamental problems does not end there. “It is up to the lab users to determine if the equipment in use is an explosive hazard. The onus is on the users, not the designers,” Dembishank says. Conflict of interest might be too strong a term, but when funding is low and the pressure to be productive runs high, as it often is in universities and startups, safety sometimes takes a backseat.

Little Info, Lots of Loss

UCSC had no sprinklers to slow or halt the fire that started in Manuel Ares’ lab and spread to Jane Silverthorne’s lab next door. A fire break — a system of fireproof, heat-resistant glass and walls — contained the January blaze, but only after the two labs had been wiped out. As insurers tallied the damages, Dean David Kliger announced that most building sections would be closed for three to six weeks. More heavily affected areas will take several months to restore. Meanwhile, Manuel Ares’ lab notebooks have been deemed priceless and irreplaceable by loss insurers.

Princeton’s facility, known as the Synth/Seq Lab, is thought to have been done in by a faulty wall outlet that melted down. “This is the highest-technology equipment that we have in the department, and it was concentrated all in that one room,” James Broach, associate director of Princeton’s Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, told the university’s campus paper. Included in the damage: an ABI Prism 377 DNA sequencer and an Affymetrix GeneChip reader.

A major problem here is that lab designers aren’t providing users enough safety information, especially about electrical hazards. Lab users themselves wind up calculating the total energy draw for a room’s equipment with little or no input from their design consultant. As Connecticut’s Dembishank points out, “Most people don’t know what the electrical draw of a piece of equipment is.”

Of course, add copious funding and the picture changes dramatically. Merck, for example, insists on having the infrastructure in place to contain fires within a single workspace. “They go way beyond what the code minimums are,” he says.

Accident Waiting to Happen?

It’s true that fire safety guidelines have failed to keep pace with new technology. Including warnings about the risk of overtaxing a building’s wiring is not in the interest of manufacturers seeking to expand their product lines. That said, individual machines, despite their increasing sophistication, are tested extensively for safe operation and often come with training programs. Applied Biosystems, for instance, insists on at least 15 hours of training for new users before an initial installation.

Still, the machine that appears to be running fine could contribute to starting a fire between the walls.

Check your electrical system to see if it’s overloaded by your equipment, and take a moment to consider how much you’d lose if a malfunctioning outlet set your lab on fire.


Safety Success Formula


Heavily involve researchers in the design of their lab safety plan. Get a complete rundown of machines they plan to use in their work and check electrical draw. If something’s irreplaceable, treat it that way.

Consult fire protection engineers during design, construction, and renovation. They can keep you in step with the primary electrical and chemical fire codes, known respectively as NFPA 91 and NFPA 45.

Face each lab individually. Determine what the hazards are and what the consequences of the worst possible case could be.

Create a safety plan in step with your lab development plan.

Follow up, inspect, and enforce. Make sure researchers are doing what they said they were going to do.

Keep an eye on the big picture. Even though state-of-the-art genomics and proteomics machinery and automation costs much more, support machinery such as freezers, centrifuges, and x-ray generators often take more power to run.

Use caution with older equipment. Schedule preventative maintenance and remember: nothing lasts forever.

Install smoke detectors that can auto-shutdown machines. Smoke without flames does serious damage to working computers.

Brad Stenger is a freelance journalist who researches human-computer interaction in computational biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, designs bioinformatic interfaces for Yale’s Gerstein Lab, and worked as a laboratory planner for architectural firm CUH2A. Send your comments to Brad at [email protected]


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