By Margaret Harris
As a veteran of many stupendously boring – but mandatory – safety training sessions, I was initially tempted to give a wide berth to a booth in the AAAS exhibit hall on lab safety.
However, two things persuaded me to linger at this particular kiosk, which had been set up by the National Institute of Health (NIH) Division of Occupational Health and Safety. One was a statistic related to me by Kersten Haskell, a science communicator at the NIH. “We have a lot of students who come into NIH labs as interns in the summer, and what we found was that of all the injuries that were happening during that time, around 75% were to students,” she said. “So we figured we had to find a way to train them better.”
The NIH’s solution to this problem was to put essential elements of safety training into a video game. This brings me to my second reason for stopping: the row of monitors displaying scenes from the Safe Techniques Advance Research – Laboratory Interactive Training Environment (STAR-LITE). This visually appealing, easy-to-use game allows students (and visiting journalists) to guide avatars through typical lab-safety situations, solving problems and receiving points (or injuries) in the process – and I couldn’t resist giving it a quick test.
The game is clearly designed with health research in mind. In fact, it’s dedicated to the memory of a biology student, Beth Griffin, who died after contracting the rare macaque-borne B virus in a laboratory. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the hazards addressed in the game could apply equally well to physics. For example, my avatar spent a happy five minutes securing gas bottles and labelling hazardous chemicals (something I did many times while working in real-life physics labs) before I reluctantly turned the game back over to Haskell and her colleagues.
STAR-LITE is principally aimed at secondary-school students and new undergraduates, but if anyone wants to have a go, it’s free to download – and it’s a heck of an improvement over the grainy videos from the 1980s that made up the backbone of my own safety training.