Occupational Health & Safety

Using containment trays will help to control the mess, but avoiding it in the first place helps save time and money and minimizes exposure. (New Pig Corp. photo)

Eight Tips for Chemical Safety

These tips allow laboratories to maintain effective chemical hygiene plans that will minimize spills, leaks, and potentially harmful chemical exposures.

Chemical hygiene plans are written documents that outline the hazards present in a laboratory and explain the processes, protocols, tools, and equipment that are available to help workers guard against those hazards. Like many safety plans, chemical hygiene plans are living documents that need to be reviewed and updated often.

Although plans are often specific to each laboratory, its chemicals, and its processes, OSHA does specify certain elements that must be contained within the plan. The following tips can help minimize chemical exposure in laboratories, round out a chemical hygiene plan, and promote worker safety.

Use General SOPs
Each chemical has a unique set of hazards and needs to be handled properly to ensure worker safety. However, for laboratories that handle a wide variety of chemicals, establishing a separate protocol for each chemical complicates training and increases the likelihood of mishandling and exposure.

A standard operating procedure (SOP) that addresses the use of correct personal protective equipment, safe handling, safe use, and proper disposal can cover all chemicals in a laboratory. Flip charts, signs, or other literature can then be used to remind workers of specific chemical hazards.

Air Flow
Air quality can quickly become compromised in laboratories, making ventilation an important factor in minimizing exposure. When determining whether the local exhaust system is adequate, a good rule of thumb is that the system should be capable of at least eight to 10 air changeouts per hour when the space is occupied.

In addition to the general exhaust system for the laboratory, exhaust hoods are another tool to increase safety. The National Research Council's Prudent Practices for Handling Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories recommends "2.5 linear feet of hood space per person should be provided for every 2 workers if they spend most of their time working with chemicals. Each hood should have a continuous monitoring device to allow convenient confirmation of adequate hood performance before use."

Housekeeping
Keeping floors clean and dry will help prevent slip and fall injuries -- the third-leading cause of worker injury and lost work time. Stocking absorbent mat pads and wipers in spill-prone locations helps employees clean up spills quickly, so the chance of a slip-and-fall incident is reduced and exposure is minimized. Providing a proper receptacle for spent cleanup materials also helps to minimize exposure.

Cleaning work surfaces throughout the day keeps work spaces uncluttered, decreasing the likelihood of reactions and spills due to counter space being overcrowded. Likewise, storing excess chemicals on countertops should be discouraged so workers will have adequate space to perform their duties properly.

Waste disposal procedures should also be established, with wastes being removed from labs to a central storage area on a regular basis. Workers should be taught not to pour liquids down drains or use hoods to get rid of volatile chemicals.

Storeroom Safety
A well-organized stockroom promotes safety and is more efficient. Putting one person in charge of the stockroom can help to facilitate proper organization and storage within the area. This person may also help to ensure that proper inventory levels are kept, duplicate orders aren't being placed, and expired chemicals are disposed of properly.

Even when storage space is at a premium, segregating incompatible chemicals in storerooms and providing containment for shelves are both important factors for worker safety.

Establish a plan for new chemicals. Before a chemical enters a lab, have a plan for properly handling, storing, and disposing of it.

Tools
Using damaged glassware can be just as dangerous as using the wrong chemicals. It doesn't take much for a hairline crack to fail and create a spill. Using containment trays will help to control the mess, but avoiding it in the first place helps save time and money and minimizes exposure.

Checking glassware and equipment prior to each use should be part of the SOP. Workers also should know how to properly handle, tag, or discard of any article that is damaged so it is not reused or put back into service until it has been repaired.

Spill Response
Even seasoned technicians can spill chemicals occasionally, so it's important to know how to properly handle spilled chemicals. Spill response plans should address spill prevention strategies, containment procedures, proper ventilation, when to evacuate, how to obtain medical care, and reporting requirements. Regular drills will help to reinforce the details of response plans.

Having a spill kit readily available in each laboratory helps trained workers contain and control a spill quickly, further helping to minimize exposure.

Safety Equipment
Signs and container labels reinforce safety and serve as a constant reminder of specific handling, use, and disposal procedures. It is equally important to properly maintain eyewash stations, drench showers, fire extinguishers, and first aid kits so that workers who are exposed to chemicals can quickly access these tools in an emergency to lessen the effects of their exposure.

Training
Having a chemical hygiene plan and making sure that workers understand the plan and how it helps them to avoid exposure to hazardous chemicals are essential requirements of OSHA's laboratory standard.

Training is required for all workers prior to their assignment in a laboratory, but education should not stop there. An annual presentation may not be enough to reinforce safety; training should be a regular activity that addresses the many different aspects of avoiding exposure.

Workers should know:

  • the location of the chemical hygiene plan
  • the location of MSDS and other educational literature
  • how personal protective equipment is selected, its location, how to use each piece properly, and how to determine when it needs to be replaced
  • the hazards presented by each chemical and procedure in the laboratory
  • how to handle chemicals properly to avoid exposure
  • how to label containers correctly
  • proper laboratory hygiene and conduct, such as never eating, drinking, or chewing gum in a laboratory; confining loose hair and clothing; and avoiding horseplay and practical jokes
  • how to use the "buddy system" to avoid working alone
  • how to evaluate the procedure or process they'll be performing so that they take only the amount of chemicals necessary for the job they're doing
  • how to handle waste materials

Although each laboratory comes with its own set of unique challenges, addressing known hazards and planning for anticipated ones will help to minimize chemical exposure and ensure a safer workplace for everyone.

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Karen D. Hamel is a technical specialist for New Pig Corp. She has more than 20 years of experience helping environmental, health, and safety professionals find solutions to meet EPA, OSHA, and DOT regulations. She is a hazmat technician, serves on the Blair County, PA LEPC, is a CERT trainer, and has completed a variety of hazmat response and NIMS courses, including Planning Section Chief. She can be reached at 1-800-HOT-HOGS(r) (468-4647) or by email to karenh@newpig.com.

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