Science faculty concerned about abuse of emergency stations

The improper activation of an eyewash station in the hallway of Thompson Biology building last Sunday caused massive damage to laboratories on the floor below. The eyewash station was activated by an unknown vandal around 2 a.m. and has led to outrage among science faculty, in addition to calls for a reevaluation of the safety stations in buildings in the Science Quad.

The activation of the eyewash station was the third incident in two years in which an unidentified vandal turned on one of the safety mechanisms in the biology building. The first incident happened last September, when someone activated a safety shower station after hours, causing flooding of offices on the second floor. Officers arrived to find two inches of rising water already on the floor.

Steven Zottoli, professor of biology, experienced a great deal of flooding in 2002 when water from the shower flowed down the hall and under his office door. Despite having papers and historical documents on the floor of the office, Zottoli commented that he “didn’t lose anything because I acted quickly.”Zottoli was concerned enough about the issue to warn the College via e-mail that “the vandalism is a wake-up call to redesign this system in all buildings.”

After the Science Center renovations between 1998 and 2000, the majority of safety shower and eyewash stations were located in the Morley Science Laboratories (MSL), a completely new wing of the Science Center. In this wing, the floor is built out of water-resistant vinyl that curves slightly upwards where it meets the wall. These two features ensure that any spilled water gathers in the center and does not seep out at the sides or down to floors beneath.

The lab consultants that Williams hired to advise on the renovation, Earl Walls Associates, recommended that option for the Morley labs. The firm advised against installing either floor drains to drain water or a holding tank to catch runoff water. “A shower is meant to wash off toxin,” said Professor Charles Lovett, director of the Science Center, who oversaw the renovation planning for eight years. “If the water drains, it goes into the sewer.”

A holding tank under the shower to prevent mixing toxic water in the drain system also has problems, Lovett said. Earl Walls Associates advised the College that such a tank, embedded in concrete, could dry out and corrode. The problem of the toxic water sitting in the tank could cause fumes and pollution problems as well. In the end, the specialized floor prevailed.

In the old biology building, no such debate about water drainage took place. According to Lovett and other faculty, the building had never had floor drains, and the renovation plans did not focus on the idea of installing some kind of water-catching device in this building. “When these buildings were built, people had a much different attitude about such things,” said David Richardson, professor of chemistry, in regards to the lack of floor drains in the biology building.

This was of little comfort to Joan Edwards, professor of biology. The activated eyewash station incident last week occurred when Edwards was out of town, so she did not find out that spilled water had seeped through the biology building’s first floor and into her lab until she returned. Although Security responded in under a minute to turn off the eyewash station, Professor Edwards returned to her lab to find ZIP discs floating in water and cardboard boxes filled with samples that had been soaked. “I just don’t know what to do,” said Edwards.The loss of data is irreplaceable. How can you work in a lab that can be flooded at any minute?”

At the time of the interview, Edwards was writing an e-mail to the College to complain, as Professor Zottoli did nearly exactly a year ago. She plans to suggest a reappraisal of the safety system to eliminate unnecessary showers and institute some kind of system to hold water should an emergency shower or eyewash station be activated in the future.

Irene Addison, associate vice president for Facilities and Auxiliary Services, said that the pull in 2002 prompted the College to ask other schools with similar lab situations for advice. Since most labs built today do not install shower drains for the reasons elucidated by Earl Walls Associates about the Morley labs, many schools are experiencing similar problems.

The hallway shower pulled in 2002 has since been removed, but no other action was taken. However, there are plans to discuss solutions. Addison could not give a date as to when these talks would take place, nor was she sure who exactly would be involved in the discussions.Some possible solutions from Addison’s point of view include moving a shower into each individual lab rather than hallway showers or installing some kind of containment tank.

“It’s too early to say when action will be taken,” Addison said. “We will have to coordinate with faculty and existing lab schedules so as not to disturb classes going on right now.”

“I think we have to do something to ensure this won’t happen again,” Lovett said. “We weren’t imagining [hallway showers] would give pranksters an opportunity to cause trouble.”

Lovett and Addison both suggested putting Bronfman and other science buildings on a card reading system similar to the one installed in the Schow Science Library to tighten security. Neither, however, could be sure how to prevent damage that could occur if a shower or eyewash station were legitimately activated due to an emergency during a lab.

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