Taking a Holistic Approach to Lab Safety
OSHA has required employers to develop a Chemical Hygiene Plan that addresses labeling as well as all other aspects of the Laboratory standard.
- By Matt Holden
- Aug 01, 2016
With the number of diseases that have made their way into the United States, such as Ebola and Zika, laboratory workers are doing some of the most important work they have ever done in searching for cures, while also potentially being exposed to these hazards more than ever before. The risks are great, and with more than 500,000 laboratory workers in place, according to OSHA, it is important to consider how they can stay safe and secure in this somewhat difficult work environment.
The hazards laboratory workers face are not just chemical and biological, but also musculoskeletal, with a constant and consistent number of physical movements required. It is for these reasons that laboratory safety has to be holistic in its approach; you cannot simply address the potential hazards that may be presented with biological and radioactive threats, especially considering the wide range of work being done in laboratories.
In terms of standardization, the OSHA Laboratory standard (29 CFR 1910.1450) serves as a general standard for lab safety. It has created a culture of consciousness, accountability, organization, and education within laboratories in industrial, governmental, and academic fields. The agency says that because of this standard, safety and training programs have been developed to monitor the handling of chemicals and to train lab personnel in safe practices. Developing good habits in the lab is crucial so that safety is perceived as inseparable with all lab activities, says OSHA.
Handling chemicals in a safe manner is paramount in the laboratory workplace, which is why special techniques have been developed at the local, state, and federal level. Appendix A of the Laboratory standard includes information about emergency preparedness, emergency response, and information on how to deal with both physical and chemical hazards. Once again, the standard emphasizes the need for safety and health practices to be incorporated into laboratory processes.
This year's AIHce 2016 conference in Baltimore featured a number of quality sessions dedicated to lab safety, key themes of which have been distilled below. From GHS to ergonomics, there is something here for every lab safety professional.
The Role of Industrial Hygiene in Laboratory Design
Kicking off a session titled "Laboratory Design, Construction, and Commissioning: Role of IH, Challenges, and Lessons Learned," was Jeffery Nesbitt, MS, CSP, CIH, from the Mayo Clinic. Nesbitt discussed the NIOSH philosophy of prevention through design and the importance of being proactive. He recommended using standards to guide the design process, followed by quality measures to ensure proper components were installed.
Next came Charlyn Reihman, MPH, CIH, a principal occupational health consultant for SafeBridge Consultants, Inc. She discussed the fact that there are more potent drugs being worked on than ever before, and therefore pharmaceutical labs need proper attention. There are a number of factors to take into consideration, ranging from engineering and work practices to PPE. Many of Reihman’s examples cited the idea that PPE is neither a one-stop shop nor an afterthought when designing and implementing procedures into a safety lab.
Following Reihman was Kwahn Ahn, a professor and researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. His lighthearted yet extensive look into fume hoods and their performance yielded a surprising result: Lab employees who stand still near a fume hood actually hinder the performance of a hood and its air flow qualities more than an employee who is in constant motion, something he attributed to air's "lazy" tendencies.
After that, William Mele, a council-certified indoor environmental consultant and senior engineer at Chemistry & Industrial Hygiene Inc., conducted a back-and-forth with the audience to determine the cause of a "goo" leakage into fume hoods. The audience was engaged with the topic as Mele highlighted the need to balance the total exhaust in the lab with the air that is coming into the hood.
Finally, Matt DI Fahim of North Carolina State University discussed the common mistakes associated with installing laboratories’ eyewash and safety shower stations. While seemingly common sense, it was surprising to see the number of eyewash stations that failed to take into account location, lack of a drain, possible electrical dangers, and other hazards.
The seemingly all-inclusive approach to lab safety is quite similar to the hierarchy of controls, the framework used to deal with workplace hazards. There are four types of measures that are used, ranked from most effective to least: engineering controls, administrative controls, work practices, and personal protective equipment. That isn't to say PPE is ineffective, but it is just one component of total lab safety and can’t be used on its own to prevent incidents in the workplace.
The other controls are important to consider. Engineering controls involve changing the physical workplace itself and, because they involve permanent changes, they are considered the most effective. Examples of engineering controls include chemical fume hoods and biological safety cabinets, for example.
Administrative controls, as discussed more in the next section, are about managing tasks in a way that minimize risk, such as developing a chemical hygiene plan or developing operating procedures for handling chemicals. The more these behaviors can become standardized, the easier it will be for employees to treat safety as a pillar of success in the laboratory workplace.
Work practices are defined as procedures that allow for a safe reduction of the duration, frequency, or intensity of the exposure to a hazard. Essentially, these are quick tips all workers should utilized while in the laboratory, such as not mouth pipetting or substituting a less harmful chemical when possible.
Finally, PPE is almost always required in the lab, but it is important to tailor your PPE needs to that of your lab and the current project at hand. Some of OSHA's advice for PPE in the lab includes making sure it is properly fitted, regularly maintained, and properly removed or disposed to avoid contamination.
GHS in the Lab
Another lab safety-related session at AIHce 2016 was titled "GHS in the Laboratory Environment." The discussion started with Denese Deeds, CIH, FAIHA, of Industrial Health & Safety Consultants, Inc., who gave a presentation on the impact of GHS on the lab standard. Deeds walked the audience through the steps employers need to take in order to make sure those working with hazardous chemicals in the lab are aware of hazards by ensuring lab containers are not removed or defaced, ensuring safety data sheets are available to all employees, and maintaining appropriate labeling on all hazardous chemicals.
Following Deeds' presentation, Mike Squillance from the Mayo Clinic discussed chemical hazard banding using GHS classification. The main takeaway from his presentation was to focus on four core tiers of hazardous chemicals: extreme risk, high risk, moderate risk, and minimal risk. Extreme risk-level chemicals require committee approval, as well as controlled storage, he explained, and high-risk chemicals also require controlled storage.
Squillance also stressed the importance of monitoring building load limits. While labeling is only one part of designing and running a safe lab, it is critical to ensure your employees know what they’re working with.
It's important to keep in mind that OSHA has required employers to develop a Chemical Hygiene Plan (CHP) that addresses labeling as well as all other aspects of the Laboratory standard. A CHP is a "written program stating the policies, procedures, and responsibilities that serve to protect employees from the health hazards associated with the hazardous chemicals used in that particular workplace," according to OSHA. Many businesses, universities, and governmental facilities make their CHPs publicly available online for those who are interested in developing one of their own.
Lab Safety and Ergonomics
On day three of the AIHce 2016 conference, Marjorie Werrell, PT, CIE, and Penny Stench, CIH, CSP, discussed ergonomics in the laboratory and provided advice on how to best streamline a laboratory. Accidents in labs are increasing, often due to the volatility of the materials but also just from poor laboratory safety practices, they said, and poor practices make labs that much more dangerous, especially when you consider the complexity of protocols that are evolving. In order to prevent incidents and injury in the lab, you have to consider safety from a work organization and work flow perspective, they pointed out.
The biggest takeaway from the session was the importance of lab layout. Not only do you need to consider the different heights of your employees, you also need to think about the order in which machines are used.
Werrell used spaghetti mapping to showcase the inefficiency of some lab layouts, which causes employees to retrace their steps multiple times in order to access different machines. By reconfiguring the lab in a way that allows employees to logically move from one step to the next, you can save time and prevent possible injury that can be the result of poor layout.
Not all laboratories are the same, which is why it is important to obey standardization—up to a point. Be sure to consider the unique aspects of your lab and try to arrive at a sound conclusion for maintaining a safe work space.
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.