Safety 12/13/21

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Here we are, smack dab in the middle of the holiday season.  There are so many holidays in the last quarter of the year regardless of your faith or which holidays you observe, and most of them involve gatherings and some kind of meal.  For me, Christmas is the next one that my family routinely celebrated, and of course, New Year’s Eve which, incidentally, is not even recognized by everybody.  The Chinese still have their separate New Year’s celebration (following the Chinese annual zodiac, of which I was born in one of the years of the Rabbit), and the Jewish people still maintain their own calendar.  I kind of poked fun on my social media page today (as of the writing of this post) asking how people in 75 BC knew when Christ would be born, the joke, of course, being that back then their calendar was counting down to this event. 

Along with these holidays comes a plethora of dangers.  Thanksgiving always ends up with turkey explosions because people try to deep-fry the bird before it is thoroughly thawed resulting in dangerous hot oil burns, and Christmas often results in fires because trees get too dry just to name a couple.  There’s also always the risk of me exploding every time someone gets all huffy by the way I word my well-intentioned wishes for a great holiday season.  Okay, not really.  I have the aggressive nature of a koala bear that just received a verbal thrashing. 

There are some safety issues that seem as if they should be common knowledge, and yet, are not.  This is precisely why, when I was teaching chemistry, my very first lab class involved a safety lecture that would last over two hours.  A lot of this stuff is lab specific (sniff, don’t snort, and avoid eating toxic reagents kind of stuff), but it also included items that should be common knowledge, such as it should be common knowledge to routinely clean the dryer filter.  This is not well-known (and, actually, is germane to this post) and poses an actual factual fire hazard.  No, we never talked about dryer filters in my chemistry class because there is no dryer in the lab, but we did always discuss the fire extinguisher and how to use it. 

For example, we did discuss the effectiveness of fire extinguishers.  Those movies where the hero runs into the burning inferno armed solely with the fire extinguisher is not heroic at all, and it’s likely the hero will never again rush back out since the typical fire extinguisher has only about twenty to thirty seconds of fire extinguishing media.  It’s effective for a fire about the size of a large table, but no more than that.  And when using it, never ever stop to check to see if the fire is out because, if it is not, the fire will simply re-ignite and half or more of that media could now be gone.  Indeed, use it until the fire extinguisher is empty, even if you’re certain that the fire is out, and be prepared.  The fire extinguisher makes a loud noise when in use, so don’t let it shock you and cause you to stop.

We discussed how the fire extinguisher should always be stored near an exit, in the case of a lab a door that exits to the hallway, but here at home there are three fire extinguishers all near a door to the outside.  If using the fire extinguisher fails to extinguish the flames, this ensures that there is a safe pass out of the house (or lab).  If the fire extinguisher is in the middle of the house, there’s a good chance that if it doesn’t work, the flames will have crept behind you and will trap you indoors.  And, of course, I always never to use a fire extinguisher on anything that breathes.  Most fire extinguishers (not all) work by removing the air supply and suffocating the fire, which it will do to animals, or people, as well. 

After this long and, yes, grueling (even for me) training, the students would have to take a safety exam and receive a 90% or better to be allowed to continue in the lab.  One year, several months later, student stopped by my office to explain how my safety training helped prevent a potentially tragedy in the college dorm.  She was doing her laundry, when somebody failed to check the dryer vent, and one of the very large driers burst into flames.  She grabbed the fire extinguisher and put the flame out, and credited me with her knowing how to use it.  This seemed incredulous to me.  When I was in elementary school, a representative from the fire department came to our school and not only taught everybody in my class how to use a fire extinguisher.  I asked if she did not know how to use a fire extinguisher before my class, and she insisted that, no, she had never been taught anything about using a fire extinguisher.

There are some things that we truly need to teach, such as basic instructions on using emergency equipment, and, honestly, self-defense.  I’ve spoken with several women about pepper spray.  My recommendation is, first of all, get one with the dye in it (sometimes it’s invisible but fluorescent) so later the suspect cannot claim he we never pepper sprayed, and more importantly, never buy just one.  Always buy at least two, and on a calm day, use one for practice.  How far does it shoot?  How accurate is it?  How wide is the spray?  It’s better to learn these things before you need them than when you do.

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