OSHA 1910.1450, the standard on occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals in laboratories, serves to ensure that workers in nonproduction laboratories are informed about the hazards of chemicals in their workplaces and are provided with the appropriate clothing and other PPE. (Workrite Uniform Company photo)

The Do's and Don'ts of Lab Coats

Use these tips for selecting the best protection for those in your laboratory.

It doesn't take much—just a slip of the hand, an accidental spill, or a small equipment malfunction—for an ordinary day in the laboratory to turn into a tragedy. On March 16, 2016, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa lost her arm and suffered burn injuries and temporary hearing loss as a result of a hydrogen/oxygen explosion. This incident is far from isolated, and no laboratory is immune to an accident occurring.

In addition to creating the potential for severe injuries or even loss of life, laboratory accidents can be costly. According to the American Burn Association, hospital fees for burn injuries can range from $47,000 up to $1.2 million, depending on the length of stay. The association estimates that one day in the hospital is required for every 1 percent of the body affected by burn injuries. Regardless of the type of injuries involved—burns or otherwise—labs may face general liability costs, increases in insurance premiums, wage indemnity, lost productivity, potential OSHA fines, loss of research funding, and damage to their public image.

So how can you avoid having something like that happen to your lab? First and foremost, it is important to have a well-established safety culture and follow the proper work practices. However, even when you are diligently following proactive preventive measures, laboratory accidents can, and do, happen. That's why it is essential to ensure that the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE)—including lab coats that meet the specific, unique needs of your laboratory—is available, used consistently, and worn correctly.

In order to determine the right lab coats for your particular laboratory environment, there are five key things to consider.

1. Protection:
The first and most important consideration always should be protection. This means it is imperative to understand the hazards and safety standards that apply to your laboratory.

Specifically, OSHA 1910.132, the general standard on PPE requirements, instructs employers to provide and pay for PPE when "hazards of processes or environment, chemical hazards, radiological hazards, or mechanical irritants are encountered in a manner capable of causing injury or impairment."

In addition, OSHA 1910.1450, the standard on occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals in laboratories, serves to ensure that workers in nonproduction laboratories are informed about the hazards of chemicals in their workplaces and are provided with the appropriate clothing and other PPE. The standard requires that workers conduct their work under conditions that minimize risks from both known and unknown hazardous substances. It also requires employers to perform risk assessments for hazardous chemicals and procedures prior to laboratory work and select appropriate controls, including PPE, to minimize risk. Finally, the standard specifies that lab coats must be worn when working with hazardous materials.

NFPA 45, Standard on Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals, provides additional guidelines intended to reduce hazards and protect personnel from the toxic, corrosive, and other harmful effects of chemicals that may result from fires and explosions. According to NFPA 45, fire-retardant lab coats should be worn where pyrophoric reagents are used outside the inert atmosphere of a glove box. Additionally, the standard states that fire-retardant clothing must meet the requirements of NFPA 2112, Standard on Flame-Resistant Garments for Protection of Industrial Personnel Against Flash Fire.

Those are just a few examples of the regulations and guidelines that you may need to follow when selecting lab coats. Depending on which hazards are present in your laboratory, the type of lab coats you need will vary. You might need lab coats that are flame resistant (FR), offer chemical-splash protection (CP), or provide a combination of both. If you determine that you need protection against both thermal and chemical-splash hazards, it is beneficial to explore your options. This dual-hazard protection used to require the use of stiff, uncomfortable garments and/or multiple layers of protection, but thanks to recent innovations, comfortable lab coats that provide combined FR/CP protection are now available.

2. Comfort:
When it comes to comfort, there are a few factors to take into account. For instance, some fabrics are more lightweight and/or breathable than others. If they still provide the proper level of protection, these fabrics can significantly improve comfort. In addition, flexible materials are usually a better choice because stiff fabrics can impair movement and feel cumbersome. Remember, the more comfortable a lab coat is, the more willing laboratory personnel will be to wear it.

3. Fit:
Another important consideration that impacts both comfort and safety is fit. Select lab coats that are long enough in both the sleeves and body to provide good coverage, but not so long that the coat could accidentally get caught on something or be dragged through a hazardous substance. It is equally important to ensure that lab coats are not so tight that they restrict the wearer's movement. Providing the right fit for each individual in your laboratory will likely mean purchasing lab coats in a variety of sizes and potentially even looking into custom-fit options. Fortunately, a variety of different styles are available in today’s market, including lab coats designed specifically to provide a better fit for women.

4. Durability:
Beyond comfort and fit, consider durability. While lab coats that are not built for durability typically have a lower up-front cost, more durable options will retain their protective properties more effectively over time and do not need to be replaced as often. Investing in durable lab coats helps to maximize safety and provides greater value in the long term. For optimal durability, look for products that are made from high-quality fabrics, constructed with double-stitched seams, and built to withstand industrial laundering, if needed.

5. Special Features:
Once you've weighed the aforementioned factors, you also may want to consider which additional features would improve the overall functionality of your lab coats. For instance, for added safety benefits, look for lab coats that feature knit cuffs. Compared to a standard open-cuff design, knit cuffs improve protection by helping to prevent sleeves from getting caught and liquids from accidentally running down the arms.

Another key consideration is convenience. If storage space is a priority for your lab, look for lab coats that offer larger and/or more pockets. Additionally, you may want to select a lab coat that is designed with pass-throughs for easy access to inner clothing.

Finally, consider what type of front closure is ideal for your lab. A secure closure is important to ensure the lab coat does not accidentally come open and expose the wearer's clothing or skin to hazards. However, a few different closure types are available. While many classic lab coats are made with button closures, a snap front closure allows wearers to put on and take off their lab coats more quickly and easily—which, again, can help improve compliance.

It's All About Being Prepared
Choosing the right lab coats can make a significant difference in lab safety. To determine the best fit for your laboratory, consider the hazards and safety standards that apply to your environment. Select lab coats that offer the types of protection—such as flame resistance or chemical-splash protection—necessary to address those hazards and regulations. Once you have determined the types of protection your lab coats will need to provide, a variety of other considerations come into play, including comfort, fit, durability, and special features. These other aspects can help further improve protection, better support performance of laboratory tasks, and increase the likelihood that the lab coats are worn compliantly.

Accidents happen, and it is important to be prepared. With the proper protective lab coats on hand, you'll be one step closer to protecting your laboratory from becoming yet another cautionary tale.

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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