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Autoclave misuse must be addressed

By Anindita Chanda

Section: Opinions

August 19, 2016

Rosenstiel Basic Medical Science Building is where the many undergraduates spend time, as it houses 13 labs. As such, one of the most visited rooms in Rosenstiel is the autoclave room on the second floor. The autoclave room contains three large machines for washing dishes and five autoclaves. Imagine how heavily these machines are used when there are only five of them, especially across hundreds of undergraduate, graduate and post-doc users. Worse yet is when any of them cannot be used because they are broken.

Contrary to what most students believe, the autoclaves do not malfunction so often because they are “old,” but rather because of how often students have been misusing them. Without a doubt, there are some weeks or certain days of the week when there is a lot of traffic in the autoclave room. Undergraduates from fly labs, cell labs and more are all there in the autoclave room with their carts filled with media or trash ready for sterilization. During classes, it gets even more hectic in that room because students want to quickly put their media into the autoclaves and dash out for their next class. Likewise, with a need to get started on plate-making or whatever other media work, impatience arises from the fact that the autoclaves—in particular the two large machines—take a long time to reach a chamber pressure of zero, when it is safe to open these high-pressure chambers.

While I cannot speak for other students, I know that on numerous occasions when I am in the autoclave room waiting for the chamber pressure to go down another student will suddenly open the autoclave door. When this happens, huge pockets of steam engulf the room.

The most cringeworthy moment, however, is when some students open the autoclave doors with their body facing the opening, as if they are asking to get badly burned! Somehow they get lucky, but it makes me think about how there will be others who will not have the same luck, and it’s a scary thought. Then there are the students who blankly stare at an autoclave, wondering how to properly open it or even start it. A similar expression returns on their faces when it is time to take their media out of the autoclave. Then those students proceed to turn on or turn off the machines incorrectly.

Inevitably, misuse of the machines causes major problems, for which Eddie Arroco, who has worked for years on maintenance in Rosenstiel, has to order parts for repair, which takes a while.

Some of the worst incidents that Arroco repeatedly sees include “catastrophic damage to the equipment when plastics melted clogging up the strainers, steam traps, valves and plumbing lines that is extremely hard, time consuming and expensive to repair.” It should also be noted that not all items can be autoclaved. There are only specific items that can withstand that level of heat and pressure contained with an autoclave machine. Even so, Arroco has seen “people putting materials in the autoclave that are not autoclavable.” That alone, both in part to what I and many of my peers have witnessed while autoclaving as well as what the staff and other researchers have seen, it is evident that there is lack of proper lab training. The most important thing to understand about this is that, yes, it is an inconvenience for students, media technicians and researchers when the machines are not available because of being broken from misuse, but the top priority is watching out for each other’s safety and our own.

In an ideal world, the best way to deal with the fact that people are not properly trained or are being careless is to hope that everyone, if at least on an individual level, can admit to themselves if they are unsure of how to properly use the autoclave machines. In such a case, just ask someone who you trust is experienced in its use to train you again. From a supervisor’s level—whether as a media technician, undergraduate trainer or as a post-doc—it is important to acknowledge that certain skills and safety measures should be reinforced often. Don’t just trust that whoever you are teaching will not be prone to making mistakes while using the machines, which have become so simple for use, after they have only used them twice independently. Many would consider this overkill, but once in awhile, why not follow up with the people you train? Test them on how they use the autoclaves, on what things they autoclave and how.

Unfortunately, being idealistic solves few problems. Upon discussing the situations that have been occurring regarding the autoclaves, my principal investigator, Professor Bruce Goode (BIOL), suggested three solutions that could potentially solve the problem of who needs to be trained and how to reinforce proper training.

The first solution is to install cameras in the autoclave room. That way if questions arise regarding the use of the autoclaves, the administration in Rosenstiel will know exactly who is to blame and reach out to them as well as to whatever lab they work for, instead of making paranoid the people who were probably using the autoclaves correctly. Taking this to another level, it could also be useful to install card swipe access into the autoclave room, at least during the hours when no one from administration or maintenance is down there (such as in the evenings and weekends). This way the administration will know exactly who entered the autoclave room at what time.

The last solution would be to bring some sort of uniformity to the training. As Professor Goode and I were discussing, a possible root for the lack of proper training and confusion regarding autoclave usage is from the fact that students are trained by different people, in a different manner. What one lab may deem absolutely unsafe, may be okay for another lab. For this reason, there should be one person, who everyone in Rosenstiel agrees is well-trained with autoclaves, employed to train all new members who join any one of the labs in Rosenstiel.

These solutions could potentially eliminate not only a safety hazard, but could also ensure that one less person is misusing and therefore disabling an autoclave for a few days or weeks, which makes everyone who works in Rosenstiel very happy.

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