Chemophobia strikes again

The department I work in is keen to give young people the opportunity to experience life as a chemist. So we offer pupils from local schools work experience placements. But before the pupils come to us we have to be vetted by qualified organisations who make sure we are a safe place for the young people to spend a week or two.

So far so normal.

But then comes the health and safety forms which invariably contain the statement:

Use of chemicals in any process is prohibited for young persons.

And so begins the merry dance which typically goes something like this…

Me: “About your health and safety forms.”

Them: “Yes.”

Me: “Well it says that the work experience pupils can’t use chemicals.”

Them: “That’s right.”

Me: “I’ve got some problems with that. Firstly, the young people are coming to work in a chemistry department so banning the use of chemicals makes it all a bit pointless doesn’t it?”

Them: “Well it’s a rule we enforce on everyone to make sure the pupils are safe.”

Me: “OK, but what do you mean by chemicals?”

Them: “You’re the chemist you tell me.”

Me: “Can they do the washing up?”

Them: “Yes of course.”

Me: “But the washing up liquid contains chemicals and the water is a chemical and so, for that matter, is the air they are breathing.”

Them: “Now you are just being silly, of course we mean harmful chemicals.”

Me: “Would you care to tell me what you mean by harmful?”

Them: “Look, you are the chemist shouldn’t you know that?”

Me: “Yes, I do. So I’ll make sure they don’t have any salt on their chips.”

Them: “What are you talking about?”

Me: “Salt is a chemical and its harmful. So I’ll be sure to stop them eating any whilst they are in my care.

Them: “Now you’re being ridiculous.”

Me: ” Am I? The point I am making is that your rule about banning the use of chemicals is meaningless. Its unenforceable. Everything we encounter contains chemicals. How about I can show you all the COSHH forms for the procedures that the pupils will be doing? They are all low risk and so they will get a taste of chemistry all done in a safe and controlled way. Then can you remove the silly statement banning chemicals from your document? ”

Them: “I’m not sure we can do that.”

And so on…

It drives me nuts.



  1. My deep admiration for your patience and perseverance. In Italy we say “the mother of all the idiots is always pregnant”.

  2. Thanks, I generally preserver because otherwise this sort of rubbish just perpetuates. And to be fair I’ve managed to get one of these agencies to change their procedures. I’m working on the next one. I’ll let you know what happens.

  3. Sigh … Well done there. It is so aggravating, and there just seems to be no way around it. I’m curious as to your general safety procedures. What do your COSHH forms look like? How often do you guys fill them out?

  4. Our COSHH forms are pretty substantial, 5-6 pages with details of quantities, procedures, waste disposal, emergency shutdown procedure, PPE etc. Every procedure needs one and they are reviewed every year.

  5. J. Anthony Carter says:

    That’s not chemophobia my good man… that’s commonsenseophobia. It’s inherent in all bureaucratic idiots in today’s modern society and not a one of them will do anything or extend their usefulness into any area not already vetted as safe and inert by their management. And that’ll be taking place all the way up the idiot… umm, bureaucratic ladder. Period.

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