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New coats put UTSC at the forefront of lab safety

UTSC's new lab coats in action. (Photo by Ken Jones)

If you sense an extra esprit de corps from the people in UTSC’s science labs, maybe it’s due to their spiffy new lab coats.

Thanks to a grant from the UTSC 50th Anniversary Legacy Fund, UTSC’s health and safety group has been able to hand out 250 white cotton, snap-up lab coats with the UTSC 50 logo emblazoned on the front.

Professors and lab assistants are delighted – “they love them,” says Susan Gropp, acting manager of environmental health and safety for UTSC.

But the $5,100 spent on them isn’t just for nostalgic memories of UTSC’s half century. It’s also about promoting the use of high-quality personal protective equipment – PPE – in labs where safety must always be top of mind. UTSC is the first institution in Canada to mount such a program.

“The instigator of it all was a tragic lab accident at UCLA in 2008,” says Gropp. A young research assistant in organic chemistry, unprotected by a lab coat, was using a syringe to extract t-butyl lithium, a compound that immediately bursts into flame if it meets the air. The syringe suddenly came apart and a flash fire engulfed the assistant’s clothes, melting her synthetic sweater. She later died in a hospital burn unit.

“It really hit home because it was a setting and a scenario that we could relate to,” says Gropp.

When the Legacy Fund was announced, Holly Yuen, currently on maternity leave from the manager post, saw an opportunity. She applied for funding for the cotton coats to replace “existing ones that may be made of materials that can be ignited and melt easily (e.g. synthetic fibres such as polyester and nylon blends).”

The new, tightly woven cotton coats are more fire-resistant and count as a walking advertisement for lab safety and the need for PPE, says Gropp.  “They also add the UTSC sense of community – celebrating our 50 years – that the logo brings.”

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