Every lab professional knows how crucial it is to follow health and safety rules when in a laboratory. The inherent risks of working directly with hazardous, reactive chemicals, and industrial equipment are well documented. Yet, despite having strict lab safety rules in place, most lab professionals could tell you about a time where they were in danger while at work.
“Most labs are generally safe spaces, however, workers can become complacent when it comes to safe laboratory practices. It’s not the lack or rules or protocols that’s causing risk, it’s more about how well a team adheres to those rules and their approach to monitoring safe behaviors.”
-LouAnn Evans, Marketing Director, Pipette.com
It’s easy to assume most lab accidents happen in facilities with poor safety protocols and a negligent safety monitoring program. While such incidents tend to make the news more often, most lab accidents occur in laboratories who follow accepted safety practices.
In this article we’ll go over lab safety rules that can be easily overlooked and lead to serious hazards in everyday lab settings.
Rule 1: Proper Labeling of Chemicals and Materials
Accurate labeling of chemicals is a basic lab safety rule essential to creating a safe working space. Despite its importance, however, it’s not uncommon for containers to be mislabeled, likely due to the routine and repetitive nature of the task. Yet, mislabeling lab materials can lead to dangerous mix-ups with severe safety and operational consequences.
One example of this is an incident that happened at the University of Berkeley in 2004. A researcher discarded isopropanol waste into a waste container labeled, “isopropanol” that unfortunately, was actually a waste jar for concentrated nitric acid. When the two substances mixed a vigorous reaction occurred and led to the researcher's arm being sprayed with the concentrated acid.
Fortunately for the researcher in this incident, they suffered only minor chemical burns. However, it shines a light on how crucial accurate labeling practices are to a lab’s overall safety.
Tips to keep your labeling practices in check include:
- Never remove a reagent's original label until it is empty and has been rinsed.
- Ensure every team member adheres to the same practices when labeling secondary containers and vessels.
- Be diligent - include label inspections as part of your daily/weekly safety checks.
- Educate lab staff on the dangers of mislabeled chemicals and hazardous materials.
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Rule 2: Regular Safety Equipment Checks
Regular safety equipment checks are vital to ensure all lab equipment functions correctly and safely. This rule is crucial because malfunctioning equipment can (and has) lead to serious –even fatal, accidents. However, it's often overlooked because it’s time consuming, tedious, or labs don't have an effective maintenance program.
One example of the seriousness of neglecting regular equipment checks is an incident at a pulp mill in 2020. Poor maintenance of a pulp bleaching tank led to a fire resulting in two casualties.
To prevent such occurrences, labs should establish a routine for regular equipment inspections. This can include maintaining a log of checks and services, assigning responsibility to specific team members, and scheduling periodic maintenance sessions. Be sure to include safety equipment such as eye wash stations, safety showers, and fume hoods in your checks.
To stay on top of equipment maintenance, consider asset maintenance software– it’s a great way to ensure that all critical equipment is consistently monitored and maintained, potentially reducing the risk of accidents significantly.
Rule 3: Wear Proper PPE
Strict adherence to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) guidelines is essential in any lab setting and can protect staff from harm should an incident occur. Yet, despite its importance, finding team members not wearing their PPE is not uncommon, likely due to discomfort, perceived inconvenience, low-risk scenarios, or time constraints.
It’s easy to become complacent about PPE, especially when it’s part of your daily work attire. The uncomfortable nature of lab coats, gloves, safety glasses, and other protective items, doesn’t help. However, PPE worn at all times is critical to keep employees safe.
Common Types of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Required in Laboratories
Protect against spills, splashes, and direct contact with hazardous materials
Material should be chosen based on the type of hazard (e.g., chemical, biological)
Protect hands from chemicals, heat, or biological agents
Material varies (e.g., nitrile, latex, neoprene); choose based on hazard
Protect eyes from splashes, dust, and vapors
Goggles offer more comprehensive protection than glasses
Provide additional face protection against splashes and hazardous reactions
Often used in conjunction with goggles or glasses
Protect from inhaling airborne particles, vapors, or hazardous fumes
Type varies based on the hazard (e.g., N95, half-face, full-face respirators)
Protect feet from spills and dropped objects
Should be sturdy and cover the entire foot
Additional protection for the front of the body against spills and splashes
Material choice depends on the type of hazard
Protect against hearing damage in environments with loud machinery
Earplugs or earmuffs depending on the level of noise
A few reminders of why PPE is critical for lab workers include:
- Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji died from wounds inflicted while working with a highly reactive substance at her UCLA laboratory. Investigators felt if she had been wearing a lab coat, her injuries may not have been fatal.
- Before PPE became commonplace in laboratories, several notable scientists damaged or lost their eyesight while performing experiments. Humphry Davy and Gay-Lussac are two prime examples.
To help reinforce PPE adherence in your lab, consider these tips:
- Regularly review and update PPE guidelines.
- Conduct frequent training sessions on proper PPE usage.
- Ensure easy access to comfortable and fitting PPE for all staff.
- Implement a monitoring system to check PPE compliance regularly.
Rule 4: Chemical Storage and Waste Management
How labs manage their chemicals directly impacts the safety and well being of their lab environment. As such, how lab teams store and dispose of their chemicals is of vital importance and is required by Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).
Proper chemical storage and disposal are vital for maintaining lab safety, crucial for preventing accidental mix-ups and chemical reactions. However, these rules are often overlooked due to the routine nature of these tasks and a sense of safety and complacency that can easily develop.
It’s not difficult to imagine what could (and has) happened in labs and industrial facilities that don’t manage chemical storage and waste well, the safety risks are clear. However, another impact labs need to be aware of is the cost of paying fines if a governing body finds their facility isn’t adhering to chemical storage and waste management laws.
Examples of how much poor storage and waste management can cost:
- N&D Transportation Company was fined over $310 thousand in 2021 for several violations related to how they stored and managed substantial amounts of formaldehyde and peracetic acid.
- Mann Chemical Company paid $200 thousand and was ordered to serve three years probation for their approach to storing 92 drums of 70% concentrated Hydrofluoric acid.
To avoid incurring financial and legal penalties, and to keep your workers safe, be strict with how you manage and store your chemicals with measures that align with local, state and federal laws.
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Strengthen Lab Safety Rules: Quality Safety Supplies
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