Lab Clutter and Cleanliness

It’s the time of the year that our laboratory inspections have rolled around again, and once again, as it is every year, one of the key pieces of advice is to keep our spaces “free of clutter”. And once again, as we do every year, I expect we will be judged as failing to meet this criterion.

The response from the lab manager is always something like “This is a real laboratory.” “We’re doing work, of course there’s stuff all over the place”, or my favourite “I’m actually working on that right now” (where ‘right now’ means ‘anytime within the last 4 weeks’).

The lab I work in has a very poor culture of tidiness, which is suspect is due to a several cultural and historical factors. One contributor may be the constant quiet tousle for work space in the organisation, and if labs are seen to be underutilised the murmurs will start… “Look at that big bench with nothing on it. When’s the last time you saw someone working there? What do they use that fumehood for if there’s nothing in it?”. There’s also a reluctance common amongst older chemists to throw anything away, which inevitably increases clutter. However, it’s my opinion that the main cause of lab clutter in my workplace is simply laziness.

Over the last few years, as my feelings of ownership over the workplace have increased, I’ve began to rearrange, replace, and rehome items I felt were cluttering the laboratory. The one recent change which has made me exceedingly happy, is allocating personal bench and hood space to every person in the team. It took over 4 years working here to get everyone to agree to it but it’s made a massive positive improvement on the way I conduct lab work. We now have 1 full bench and hood for our sole personal use, and a few remaining spaces that will continue to be communal areas. Leading up to this was a period where I couldn’t even find a spare 30 cm2 to decant something into a beaker; people would work wherever they could find a skerrick of bench, and leave glassware, containers and all manner of laboratory miscellany about the place with reckless abandon. When I did manage to clear a space for myself I sometimes felt it necessary to leave it looking like this.

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As a small team of only 4 people, we have a large lab space of approximately 150 square metres over 3 laboratories. Granted, we do have quite a lot of stationary equipment and instruments with large footprints which take up a fair bit of room. But even so, as the newest employee (at almost 5 years), I feel as though my colleagues have forgotten (or never realised) exactly how good we’ve got it and don’t appreciate the space we have. All of my previous workplaces had shared benches and hoods which were always kept tidy and uncluttered. I don’t remember any fights or meetings had over messiness. The first lab I worked in didn’t even have offices and we hot-desked in the lab without any issues.

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This is what my hood looks like right now. Given that I don’t do any synthesis, I’ve no need for a permanent Schlenk setup or anything like that. My bench is much the same, housing only a box of kimwipes, a box of pasteur pipettes and a sharps disposal container. My colleagues have commented to me things like “you haven’t done any lab work for two weeks”, an assumption they’ve made simply because they haven’t seen any glassware or equipment on my bench/hood in that time. What they’ve failed to realise is that of course I’ve been working in the lab, it’s just that I’ve just done this really weird thing called cleaning up after yourself.

Of course I’m not a complete lab cleanliness saint, and sometimes I leave stuff lying around too. Out of laziness, forgetfulness, or spite (the spite thing never works BTW, a messy person does not care or even notice that you have made things more messy).
 

Safety issues aside, I feel like a messy lab displays a real lack of pride in the work that you do. We often have visitors to our lab, students, visiting scientists, sales reps, other professionals and frankly it’s embarrassing to me thinking about the state our labs have been in at times. It doesn’t look like we’re working hard, it looks like we are shameful filthy pigs.

 

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Postscipt. One piece of clutter I was rather fond of was this HPLC energy bar which used to sit on top of our instrument, in what I saw as a particularly knee-slappingly hilarious (and harmless) joke. Health and Safety Inspectors did not agree and now it is gone.


3 Comments on “Lab Clutter and Cleanliness”

  1. fluorogrol says:

    Re: the last photo, do Agilent provide numerical data to support the claim that their 1200 series is ‘infinitely better’?

  2. bm says:

    Today is a lab clean up for me as I am away for a week and have a student starting when I return. I’m a horribly messy and lazy person, and what you’ve done in your lab highlights a great way to force someone like me to keep their shit in order: accountability. If nobody cares how messy your space is, unless you’re naturally pretty tidy, it’s going to get out of hand before long. Having someone share your space or just get on your ass about keeping it orderly is essential.


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