Safety in the ECE Undergraduate Programs

ECE lab safety is addressed through a variety of mechanisms: the ECE Department’s Health and Safety Co-ordinator, safety training for laboratory staff, the Ontario-wide Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), standard safety practices for all laboratories, and special safety practices for laboratories with potentially dangerous equipment.

ECE Health and Safety Co-ordinator

The co-ordinator’s mandate is to ensure that the ECE Department complies with legislation and University policies related to health and safety.

Safety Training for Laboratory Staff

Safety training for Instructors, Laboratory Instructors, and Teaching Assistants includes the following:

  • All employees of the University (including Teaching Assistants, Laboratory Instructors, and Instructors) are required to pass the following safety training through a sequence of online courses and quizzes:
    • WHMIS 2015
    • Employee Safety Orientation
    • Violence in the workplace
    • Accessibility in the workplace
    • Any hazard specific training
  • Teaching Assistants attend a Teaching and Research Assistant Safety Orientation Seminar during their Graduate School Orientation
  • Laboratory Instructors are strongly encouraged to take first-aid courses and to stay up-to-date on their training. Most Laboratory Instructors have this training and keep it updated.
  • Safety is an important topic at the meetings of all laboratory instructors, which happen once each term.
  • At the beginning of each term, Laboratory Instructors review safety procedures for their laboratory with their Teaching Assistants.

Standard Safety Practices

Standard safety practices for all ECE laboratories include:

  • Safety posters located in a standard location near a doorway:
    • Fire/Evacuation procedure
    • First-Aid Emergency procedure
    • Violent Situation on Campus procedure
    • Hazardous Material Spill (if applicable)
    • Hazardous Waste Disposal (if applicable)
    • Lab Hazard Poster
    • Emergency-contact phone numbers
  • A first-aid kit is located in each laboratory. Also, each building has a master first-aid kit. In the E2 building, which has most of the ECE undergraduate laboratories, the room with the master first-aid kit is identified by a large sign displayed prominently outside the room.
  • A fire extinguisher is located in or near each lab, according to University safety rules.
  • Fire Wardens are assigned a location within a building and are responsible for ensuring that the buildings are evacuated in the event of a fire alarm.
  • Telephones are located in each lab.
  • Safety inspections are performed for each laboratory on the following schedule:
    • Each day: Informally by the Laboratory instructor
    • Each month: Laboratory instructor
    • Each term: Department’s Health and Safety Co-ordinator
    • Each year: University’s Joint Health and Safety Committee
  • Safety inspections of classrooms are performed once per year by the Department’s Health and Safety Co-ordinator.
  • In the first lab of the course, the Laboratory Instructor presents the following information:
    • Exit doors, recommended building exits, evacuation procedures
    • Location of the phone and emergency phone number (911)
    • Location of emergency information posters, first-aid kit, and fire extinguisher
  • All laboratories that have potential safety risks for students have a safety orientation at the beginning of the term and safety procedures are documented in the laboratory manual. Some of these courses have also developed techniques and procedures to assess and ensure the students understanding and compliance with safety procedures. Details for specific laboratories are provided below.

Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS)

All students and employees of the University are required to take training on WHMIS, which is an Ontario program that was developed in concert with the federal Occupational Health and Safety Act. For undergraduate students, WHMIS training is delivered, and evaluation is done online through the University's on-line course management system (Waterloo LEARN) as part of ECE 105: Classical Mechanics. Students must provide proof of WHMIS certification prior to attending their first ECE 105 lab. For technical staff, WHMIS and other safety training are done online, and auditing of completion is done by the Department Safety Co-ordinator. For graduate student teaching assistants, WHMIS training is done online and is required.

Safety in the Digital Hardware Laboratories

The digital-hardware laboratories use low-power electronics (12V DC, 1.5A max). The digital-hardware boards are mounted to wooden or ABS boards and have a plexiglass plate mounted above them. These cases protect the boards from mishandling by students and protect the students from accidentally touching a board.

Safety in the Control Laboratories

Some of the labs in the control courses involve the use of robots. The robots are designed specifically for educational environments. The robots are relatively small, and the motors are low power. All moving parts can be stopped by just the pressure of a finger.

Safety in ECE 140, 240, 340: Linear Circuits

ECE 140: Linear Circuits is the first laboratory course that CE students take. The introductory presentation covers the fundamentals of electrical safety. The power supplies that are used output 25V DC and 1A max, but most labs use a maximum current of 100mA.

Safety in ECE 209: Electronic and Electrical Properties of Materials

Some of the labs involve the use of Class 2 lasers (523nm, <1mW). Before purchasing the lasers, the Laboratory Instructor consulted with the University's Health and Safety office to confirm that the lasers were sufficiently low power that no special equipment (e.g., safety glasses) was needed. The lasers have a label that says "Laser light, do not stare into beam" and the introductory presentation to the lab reminds the students not to look into the beam or shine the beam toward another person.

ECE 209 uses fibre-optic cables, and the labs and cables have warnings not to look into the end of the cable, because the light passing through the cable can be very intense and can damage eyes. 

Lab-5 in ECE 209 uses a strobe light. The lab manual, introductory presentation for the lab has a notice that says, "If bright flashing lights can make you sick, please let the Lab Instructor or TA know before you start this lab."

Safety in ECE 331: Electronic Devices

In Lab 1, a highly trained Lab Instructor or Teaching Assistant uses a high-voltage power supply to demonstrate the breakdown voltage of a diode for students. The lab manual and the Lab Instructor describe the hazards of this activity and explain that this activity is not to be performed by the students. Lab 5 uses a strobe light and follows safety procedures identical to the use of a strobe light in ECE 209 above.

Safety in the Microwaves, Wireless, and Optical Communication Laboratory

In the microwave labs, there is some electromagnetic radiation transmitted in free space between two horn antennas at X-band frequencies; however, power levels are extremely low (less than 15mW). This equipment is used in lab-4 of ECE 375: Electromagnetic Fields and Waves. A safety message in the lab manual reads: "CAUTION: The output power of the Microwave Transmitter is well within standard safety levels. Nevertheless, one should never look directly into the microwave horn at close range when the transmitter is on."

In ECE 473: Radio Frequency and Microwave Circuits, all signals are transmitted through cables; there is no radiation. In ECE 474: Electromagnetic Radiation and Propagation, a signal is sent between an RF transmitter and RF receiver, but power levels are well below those of cell phones.

Safety in the Energy Systems and Components Laboratory

There is a general safety presentation that is used for all courses that use the Energy Systems and Components Laboratory. The lab instructors train the teaching assistants on the safe use of the equipment and safety procedures in supervising students.

The lab instructors have ported the safety training to an online format, followed by an online quiz that all students will be required to pass before their first lab. This approach was implemented starting in Fall 2013 and ensures better traceability.

In addition to the quiz, the instructions for each lab require the lab staff to check the students' circuits before applying power. In the lab manuals, any sequence that could potentially harm the user or the equipment is presented with detailed step-by-step instructions.

Throughout the lab manuals, step-by-step instructions ensure that students follow the correct sequence of operations, and there are specific points in the lab procedure where the lab manual focuses the students' attention on safety issues.  Students must have their wiring checked by a lab instructor or teaching assistant before energizing the circuit.

The labs use educational apparatus designed and built specifically with the safety of the learners in mind. As just one small example, the labs use safety cables that have insulated sleeves and similar sockets. Typical amounts of power are approximately 1A at either 110V or 208V, with control circuits being run at 24V.

Safety in ECE 464: High-Voltage Engineering and Power-System Protection

ECE 464 uses the High-Voltage Engineering Laboratory (CPH-1332). Safety in the High-Voltage Engineering Lab is taken exceptionally seriously. The lab has only four students in each session. The students are guided and supervised directly by the lab instructor. There is a general safety presentation given in the first lab; at its conclusion, students sign a one-page summary acknowledging that "the rules were presented to me, and I agree to follow these rules." Students may not use the lab apparatus until the lab instructor has received the signed summary sheet from the student. The lab instructors train the teaching assistants on the safe use of the equipment and safety procedures in supervising students. The most important safety aspects are part of the report for Lab-1.

Safety in Fourth-Year Design Projects

In the Fourth-Year Design Project course sequence, students are taught that safety is a vitally important aspect of being a Professional Engineer and an integral part of the engineering design process. Students are introduced to provincial, federal and international safety legislation and standards. The benefits of safe working practices, as well as the negative consequences of neglecting safety, are outlined. The design project courses emphasize both working safely and incorporating safety constraints into product design. Information regarding practical and safety aspects of prototype construction is taught (e.g., correct wire sizing and safety components such as fuses, circuit breakers and power shut-offs). All students must pass an online safety quiz as part of the first of the two courses in the sequence.

The design lab provides, if needed, test equipment and space as well as a safe environment for students to work on prototypes to be presented at the design symposium. Any prototype with safety concerns, such as the use of 120v AC line voltages or high capacity current sources such as lead-acid batteries, are required to be checked for safety by the Lab Instructor at various stages of construction. There is also a final safety inspection carried out by the Lab Instructor and other qualified personnel on all projects on the morning of the Design Symposium before the public opening.