Preston Brown, a graduate student at Texas Tech University was working on the highly energetic nickel hydrazine perchlorate (NHP) in early January 2010 when an almost fatal accident that scarred him for life occurred. In a series of events that involved disregard for his supervisor’s guidelines, failure to wear safety and personal protection equipment (PPE), he incurred a perforated eye, three lost digits and severe lacerations on his arms following the explosion of the NHP.
To avoid such harmful repercussions, it is important to always put safety first by ensuring all lab members are well trained and adhere strictly to the rules and guidelines put in place. This post breaks down a number of these stipulations to enable new staff or students to navigate the lab environment in a way that reduces the risk of injury and damage to the lab.
General Lab Safety Rules and Guidelines
The very first point of action for new staff or students is to go through a general orientation, usually by the lab manager or a graduate student. This encompasses the standard operating procedures, safety rules, and emergency response guidelines. It is imperative to take this training seriously, jot down notes if need be, request for copies of these guidelines for in-depth study and ask questions when things are not clear.
Regardless of the type of lab you are in, there are general rules on safety that you need to observe as discussed below:
1. Learn about emergency responses
You need to be familiar with what to do in case of an accident and whom to report to or contact. It is imperative to know where items like fire extinguishers, emergency showers, eyewash faucets, first aid kits, and fire blankets are stored and how to operate or use them. Ensure all accidents, however minor is reported to your supervisor.
2. Train before experimentation
Do not operate any equipment or conduct experiments without prior training.
If you are still unsure of a certain procedure, get help from your supervisor or any other trained staff. Write down protocols or make copies of the SOPs to refer to when in doubt.
3. Plan your work during normal working hours
This ensures that you are not alone for prolonged periods because working alone leaves you more vulnerable in case of accidents or injuries. Having other members around you also ensures you have extra pairs of eyes to point out potential risks that you might miss while performing your experiments.
4. Treat all chemicals in the lab as if they were toxic
This means that there should be no direct sniffing, touching or tasting of chemicals or reaction mixes. In addition:
- Mouth pipetting is dangerous, so, use rubber bulbs or electronic pipette pumps to suck liquids,
- When using volatile or toxic chemicals, ensure to open and use them within a fume chamber.
- At the end of your experiments, thoroughly wash your hands with soap and clean water.
5. Adhere to electrical safety guidelines
Malfunction of sockets or equipment can lead to injury from electric shocks and damage of lab from fires, therefore:
- Avoid the use of electrical extension cords and plugs with exposed or frayed wires.
- In case a machine causes electric shock, immediately shut down the power source and report this to the supervisor or technician in charge.
- Ensure that power sources are not overloaded because a lot of equipment can cause overheating of the socket which can lead to a fire.
6. Laser use safety guidelines
Safety guidelines depend on the classification of the laser, with high powered laser requiring more safety measures. Generally, consider the following:
- Protective eyewear is required when working with lasers of class IIIa, IIIb and IV to avoid injury to the lenses.
- Ensure reflective objects like mirrors and jewelry are removed because they can redirect the laser trajectory and bounce it off to skin or a flammable object.
- Always switch on the laser warning light to warn other lab members against entering the room without the appropriate PPE.
- Do not put the laser beam at eye level even when you think the laser is shut off.
Chemical Safety Rules and Guidelines
Chemistry labs have an assortment of chemicals and reagents that range from the very toxic to generally innocuous chemicals. Fatal and harmful accidents can result from careless handling or non-compliance to rules and guidelines. The following guidelines apply;
1. Learn the universal chemical safety codes and pictograms
It is essential for the new lab members to understand the usage of symbols and colors to signify chemical properties and their potential hazards. For example, color blue for health hazards, yellow for unstable chemical and red for flammable. There are also symbols and pictograms used to denote radioactive substances, carcinogens, irritants, etc. All these must be clear to everyone handling these chemicals.
2. Read and understand the chemical MSDSs
Prior to the use of any chemical, ensure you have read and understood its material safety data sheet (MSDS). This contains instructions on safe use, potential hazards and how to handle spills and disposal. All MSDS should be filed in a central place where lab members can easily access them when in need of clarification.
3. Label reagent aliquots properly
All lab preparations and aliquots of reagents should be clearly labeled with the following:
- Name of reagent or chemical mix
- Date of preparation and
- Identity of the individual responsible for the preparation
This should be stored in the appropriate container, for example; amber containers for light-sensitive reagents and stored under the right temperature.
4. Follow guidelines on the storage of chemicals
It is important to adhere to the storage guidelines of chemicals within the lab for instance:
- Certain substances should not be stored in close proximity to avoid unwanted reactions while others need special consideration due to their chemical properties.
- Generally, chemicals are stored according to their hazard labels, for example, flammable chemicals are stored away from ignition sources or other reactive chemicals and at temperatures below 37o
- Other considerations include storing corrosive chemicals in additional secondary containers and storage of volatile and toxic chemicals in well-ventilated cabinets.
Individual Responsibility: Personal Protection Rules
Each member of the lab must learn and adhere to the rules and guidelines set, to minimize the chances of harm befalling them within the work environment. These encompass dress code, use of personal protection equipment and general behavior in the lab.
1. Laboratory dress code
It is important to put into consideration what you wear to the lab because certain clothes and accessories could increase the probability of injury or give little protection in case of an accident. For example:
- Avoid wearing shorts and short clothes to the lab because this leaves your legs vulnerable to chemical or biological spills.
- Closed and well-fitting flat shoes are recommended to protect your toes and for comfort when you have to spend long periods of time on your feet.
- Hair beyond chin length should be tied back or pinned up because this can be a source of contamination for your experiments or injury if it accidentally swings towards an open flame.
- Dangling jewelry on your hands, neck and hair should be removed once you enter the lab space
2. Use of PPE during experiments
Always use the recommended PPE and safety equipment for each particular experiment, remember:
- Use gloves when handling any chemicals, sometimes, specific kind of gloves will be required, for example, cryogenic gloves when handling items at very low temperatures.
- Eye goggles should be routinely used in the lab and especially when handling caustic chemicals, reagents under pressure, or when working near UV light.
- Depending on the kind of chemicals you are handling, more protection might be required, for example, the use of a blast shield in cases of a highly energetic chemical, the use of earplugs when using sonicators or lead shields when using some types of radioactive isotopes.
3. Emergency response after injury/exposure
In case of chemical contact with your skin or general exposure to infectious material like blood, you need to:
- Immediately wash your hands with soap and water.
- If the areas exposed include face, chest and arm, use the emergency shower to clean off the contaminants.
- In case your eyes are affected, immediately use the eyewash. Having another person direct the water stream for at least 20 minutes to your eye while you hold it open is recommended.
4. General code of behavior in the lab
Whilst in the lab, observe the following:
- Eating and drinking is prohibited in the laboratory. The probability of contaminating your food with chemicals or pathogens is high within the lab and these activities also distract you from ongoing experiments which could lead to loss of data or failed experiments.
- Personal grooming habits like applying make-up, combing hair or handling of contact lenses also increase chances of personal injury or contamination/infection.
- Maintaining a quiet and serene environment is important for a focussed and efficient workspace. Loud chattering and laughter, screams, sudden movements or running in the lab will cause distractions and can lead to accidents.
Collective Responsibility: Housekeeping Rules and Guidelines
A laboratory is a shared workspace and each individual has the responsibility to ensure that it is tidy, clean, well-maintained and free of contamination that might interfere with the work or wellbeing of the lab members. The following guidelines will ensure a safe and efficient working environment.
1. Cleaning and disposal of waste
Make sure you are conversant with the lab’s rules on the handling of used glassware, spillage, and disposal of waste.
- Some labs have designated glassware cleaners and therefore you need to transfer used items to the central cleaning station, while others have a policy of ‘use and clean’.
- In cases of non-toxic spillages, notify people working around the area and immediately clean it up to reduce the chances of injuries from slips and falls.
- On waste disposal, many labs have separate disposal directives for different kinds of waste, for example, there could be a separate bin for gloves and paper waste, another for plastic items, and a different one for sharps. Ensure you dispose items accordingly.
2. Declutter working spaces and aisles
For a more efficient workspace, you should;
- Ensure that items like chairs, stools, bags, and waste bins do not block paths and aisles to reduce tripping hazards. This is especially crucial in case of an emergency and people need to evacuate fast.
- Remove from the bench glassware, reagents, and equipment that you no longer need to avoid cramming workspaces with unnecessary items. This not only helps you work more efficiently but also reduces the chances of knocking over items causing breakages or spillages.
- Access to emergency exits and emergency response items like fire extinguishers, showers, and eyewash faucets should be free from obstruction.
3. Follow the lab guidelines on the storage of equipment and chemicals
If there are designated spaces for storage of particular items, ensure you return them in the appropriate place after use to avoid inconveniencing the next user. Adhere to guidelines made to make the workspace more efficient, for example, frequently used items are stored closer or lower on the shelves while the less frequently used items are put much farther.
4. Keep lab records up to date
Many labs have inventories where the use of certain items is captured and this information is used to make new orders or monitor usage. Ensure you correctly identify reagents or items acquired from storage/stock. At the end of your experiments, turn off machines that were in use and if your lab guidelines require logging equipment usage, do not forget to do so.
The adherence to laboratory safety rules and guidelines cannot be overemphasized and with reports of a continually high number of accidents in academic and research laboratories, a culture of safety has to be ingrained in every staff, student or researcher working in these spaces. This will ensure that life-altering harm does not befall lab members, data is not corrupted, and wastage of resources is avoided.
- Meyer T. How about safety and risk management in research and education? Procedia Engineering, 2012 42: 934 – 945
- National Research Council. Prudent Practices in the Laboratory. Handling and Management of Chemical Hazards. National Academy Press: Washington, DC, 2011.
- Nature special report. How dangerous is chemistry? Nature, 2006 441: 560–561
- Foderaro LW. Yale Student Killed as Hair Gets Caught in lathe. New York Times, 13-04-2011
- Eguna MT Suico MLS and Lim PJ. Learning to be safe: Chemical laboratory management in a developing country. Chem Health Safe 2011:6(4);5-7.
- Kandel KP, Neupane BB, Giri B. Status of chemistry lab safety in Nepal. PLoS One. 2017 23:12(6)
- Cohen J. Lab safety. Alarm over biosafety blunders. Science. 2014 18:345 (6194); 247-8