The Fundamentals of Lab Safety

The Fundamentals of Lab Safety

Labs are often home for some of the most dangerous hazards. Here’s how employees can stay safe.

Following the rapid innovation, creation and distribution of a vaccine for COVID-19, there is no question that the work done in labs is important. Each day, scientists and researchers are making discoveries that improve our world and save lives. Keeping these employees safe is of the utmost importance, so understanding the fundamentals of a safe lab are critical. To better understand how to conduct a safer lab experience for all, I asked Derek Sang Technical Training Manager at Bulwark, for the top practices to ensure protection in these environments. The topics below are just a few of Sang’s top 15 fundamental practices, which we have listed in full in the sidebar on page XX.

Safety is a Daily Duty

On the list of fundamental practices, Sang directs employees of laboratories to, “get involved in your safety program. Make safety part of your day-to-day job and encourage peers to do the same.” While this is great advice for employees in any industry, this is particularly poignant for hazardous environments where employees are potentially exposed to corrosive chemicals, irritating airborne particles or open fire as well as many other dangers. One of the riskiest behaviors an employee can find themselves exemplifying is complacency. Cutting corners, acting aloof and not following written policies and procedures can lead to dangerous circumstances for everyone involved.

To ensure that all employees feel it is part of their job to take their safety and the safety of others into their own hands. This means including workers in meetings about safety, talking frequently about the changing hazard landscape in their environment and reminding employees that their level of protection is contingent on their adherence to the policies and procedures put in place for them.

Appropriate PPE for the Job

As with many other industries, PPE is important to the safety of workers in laboratories as well. Another item on Sang’s list is, “Ensure that the appropriate PPE…is on hand when you need it.” There are quite a few levels of protection that should be considered when it comes to PPE in labs. Here are some of the most common types of gear you might find:

Safety Goggles: As mentioned before, labs are notorious for being home to some of the most hazardous chemicals. These can splash into the into the eyes if an employee is not careful. To mitigate this hazard, employees should look for vision protection suitable for the job, which includes safety googles that protect not only the eyeball, but the area around the eyes from chemical splash. For a better understanding of what kind of eyewear you should be purchasing, take a look at ANSI’s Z87.1 standard.

Gloves: Your hands can be your best tool, so it is important to protect them. When it comes to the hazards present in labs, it is important to choose hand protection that will keep your hands safe from absorption of chemicals, chemical burns, thermal burns, lacerations and more. Disposable nitrile or neoprene gloves are usually appropriate as protection from incidental splashes or contact with lab chemicals. However, the SDS should be consulted to verify chemical compatibility with the gloves being used.

Protective Clothing: It is important to wear protective clothing that can resist physical and chemical hazards when working in a laboratory, especially when an exposure may occur. Lab coats can protect against minor chemical splashes and solid contamination, while plastic or rubber aprons are best for protection from corrosive or irritating liquids. Ensure that your protective clothing keeps you safe from all hazards, especially if employees will be working around an open flame, as flame-resistant options are available.

Foot Protection: It is important to wear closed toe shoes at all times when employees are in buildings where chemicals are being used or stored. Workers should avoid perforated shoes, sandals or cloth sneakers when in laboratories or where mechanical work is being conducted. This kind of footwear offers little protection against chemical and physical hazards.

Information is Power

You will notice on Sang’s list of fundamental lab safety practice, several of them are aimed to generate more education for employees. This knowledge can give employees the basis of information that they need to go into the workplace with a confident outlook to perform their job tasks safely and effectively.

The first on the list is to, “read the lab safety manual.” This cannot be stressed enough. While every lab varies their manual based on the duties performed and hazards present, there is still a lot of powerful information inside these safety manuals to arm employees with the knowledge they need to mitigate potentially dangerous situations. Safety manuals may include, but are not limited to:

  • Lab safety practices
  • Chemical hygiene plans
  • Emergency procedures
  • Health hazards of chemicals
  • Electrical Safety
  • Lab ventilation practices
  • Flammable materials list

Sang also mentions that it is important to, “maintain an easily accessible safety library with relevant resources.” It is important that if employees have a question, or do not know what to do in a high stress moment, that they have a place they can go to easily and quickly pull information. The more information employees have, the better prepared they will be if the worst happens.

Lab Safety is Human Safety

It is imperative that scientists, researchers and others who might find themselves working in laboratories make safety a continuous theme in their day-to-day work, wear appropriate PPE for the job and arm themselves with as much information as possible to protect themselves. While there are many safety practices that are important when it comes to lab safety, I do hope that you’ll find Sang’s list of fundamentals useful and thought provoking for the next time you step into the lab.

15 Fundamental Practices of a Safe Lab

1. Follow the written Environmental Health & Safety affairs (EH&S) policy statement.

2. Read your lab safety manual.

3. Organize a departmental committee of employees and management that meets regularly to discuss EH&S issues.

4. Allocate a portion of the departmental budget to safety.

5. Implement an EH&S orientation for all new employees.

6. Make learning to be healthier, safer and more environmentally friendly an integral part of your education, work and life.

7. Get involved in your safety program, make safety part of your day-to-day job and encourage your peers to do the same.

8. Be prepared for unannounced laboratory inspections.

9. Identify and correct hazardous conditions and unsafe practices.

10. Before conducting an experiment, ask yourself:

  • What are the hazards or potential hazards?
  • What regulatory standards apply to these hazards?
  • What are the prudent practices, protective facilities and personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary to minimize the risk of exposure to hazards?

11. Include health and safety considerations in every pre-experiment discussion.

12. Ensure that the appropriate PPE, such as flame-resistant or chemical-splash protective lab coat, is on hand and available when you need it.

13. Develop specific work practices for individual experiments, such as those that involve particularly hazardous materials and/or should only be conducted in a ventilated hood.

14. Don't allow experiments to run unattended unless they are failsafe.

15. Maintain an easily accessible safety library with relevant resources.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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