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Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009

Robert Cheng: A Little Planning — and Common Sense — Go a Long Way

By Julie Chao

Cheng, pictured with a colleague
at left, made a potentially dangerous experiment less risky by identifying safety controls during the project-planning phase

Question: what do you get when you cross a flame, a laser, and a poisonous gas? Answer: an extremely dangerous experiment. Such an experiment would not even be considered at any other facility because of the risks, but Berkeley Lab Senior Scientist Robert Cheng was able to pull it off last year—with a little planning. The key, he says, is building the safety time into the project schedule. “You have to plan ahead and identify all the risks and address each one of them,” he says. “I give myself a lot of time to think through it. Never wait until the last minute.” In this case, he worked with Lab safety experts to come up with engineering measures to control the risks and procedures to minimize the risks. It took six months of planning, but in the end, he got the data he needed for his project, developing combustion technology for near-zero-emission coal power plants.

But safety doesn’t always have to be a long, drawn-out process. Sometimes, it can be as simple as turning off the faucet. One morning in August, Cheng walked into his office to find it soaked with water. As it turns out, some postdocs upstairs had accidentally left the faucet running — for the fourth time. To make matters worse, they work in a lab that uses radioactive materials. So the affected areas had to be quarantined and tested for radioactivity, and someone who had unknowingly entered the area early in the morning also had to be tested — before cleaning crews could enter. “They forgot to turn off the water,” says Cheng. “You don’t learn that in safety training. The training is just a minimum. You have to put it into practice, and exercise common sense.”

In case they forget a fifth time, the division director took a preventive step: he had sinks installed that do not overflow.