September 2010, Vol. 22, No.9

Safety Corner

The basics of laboratory safety

Becky Soter

The number of hidden dangers laboratory technicians encounter on a daily basis is enormous. They work with and dispose of biohazardous waste, hazardous chemicals, and untreated and treated wastewater. The laboratory supervisor is the first line of defense to ensure that practices, procedures, and equipment are in place to protect employees and produce quality data.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that protection begin with a chemical hygiene plan. A chemical hygiene plan is a written program developed and implemented by an employer that sets forth procedures, equipment, personal protective equipment, and work practices that protect employees from the health hazards presented by hazardous chemicals used in that particular workplace. This plan is an all-encompassing document that collects all of the tools used to ensure good, safe laboratory protocols.


General safety

General safety measures are the beginning of safe laboratory practices. Wear appropriate eye protection and protective face shields or masks for the task at hand. Keep food and beverages out of any lab where work is being conducted. Avoid horseplay. Wear the appropriate gloves for the work at hand.

Likewise, wearing a lab coat and slip-resistant shoes makes for a safer workplace. (Using antislip mats throughout the lab also is advised.)

Probably one of the most overlooked tips for general safety in the laboratory (and at home, for that matter) is to keep work surfaces clean and free of clutter. This improves efficiency, as well as safety.


Safety analyses

The next step beyond general good lab practices is assessing the risk for individual analyses. The job safety analysis (JSA) is a step-by-step evaluation of the potential hazards the lab worker may be exposed to during tasks ranging from daily duties and lab testing to sampling that may be required during an emergency. The JSA assesses the hazards employees will encounter while performing a specific task and identifies the personal protective equipment needed for protection.


Standard operating procedures

When working in laboratories that deal with corrosive, carcinogenic, and teratogenic chemicals and reagents — such as wastewater laboratories — additional safety measures must be taken that take into account the bigger picture.

For example, when handling and working with hazardous chemicals, reagents, or biohazardous material, it is important to wear appropriate personal protective equipment and follow proper protocols pertaining to the specific hazardous item being handled. Lab technicians also need to know where and how the chemicals will be stored, as well as where and how they will be disposed of. To ensure that this information is available, a standard operating procedure (SOP) should exist for each process or analysis carried out in the laboratory.

At a minimum, the elements of an SOP should include

  • its purpose, identifying the reason for the process or analysis;
  • its scope, identifying all persons to whom the SOP applies;
  • a listing of any safety equipment that will be needed while carrying out the process or analysis;
  • a listing of laboratory equipment required to carry out the process or analysis;
  • procedures, including specific steps that will be taken to carry out the process or analysis;
  • troubleshooting information to help correct any issues that may arise as part of the process or analysis;
  • quality assurance/quality control measures, including control checks that have to be performed to ensure that the process or analysis is providing accurate data;
  • a review schedule, including information specifying how often the SOP is reviewed and revised;
  • a training schedule, including information on how often training on this SOP will occur; and
  • contacts and references, including information on whom to contact regarding the SOP or where supporting information can be located.

Storage and disposal methods can also be included in each individual SOP or separated into one large SOP that solely discusses storage and disposal methods for each analysis and measurement the laboratory performs.


Preventive measures

The most important safe work practice that can be carried out to help ensure the safety of laboratory technicians is maintaining consistency of preventive measures. Pay close attention to laboratory equipment, such as fume hoods, plate warmers, ovens, etc. This equipment must be inspected and calibrated consistently to prevent injury to lab workers or damage to expensive lab equipment.

Likewise, chemical inventories should be inspected and maintained on a daily basis. Any chemical that is outdated or nearing its expiration date should be disposed of in accordance with proper disposal methods. Excess outdated chemicals only increase the potential for disaster. Any lapse of inspection or calibration increases the risk of hazards, and some hazards may result in legal actions, such as regulatory compliance or workers’ compensation litigation, if an incident were to occur.

Emergency response

Hopefully, an emergency situation will never develop, but if (meaning when) it does, be prepared. To handle accidental or incidental exposure to chemicals, biological contaminants, or other hazards, laboratories must be adequately equipped with appropriate emergency response equipment and procedures. Typical emergency equipment includes eyewash and shower stations, chemical-spill kits, first-aid kits, broken-glass boxes, and fire extinguishers.

Response equipment should be easily accessible, and every worker in the lab should be required to know where it is located and how to use it.

An additional good practice is to keep a separate broom and dustpan in the lab for quick cleanup of broken glass or for use in conjunction with the cleanup process of a spill.

These issues and actions only scratch the surface of the hazards that laboratory technicians encounter on a daily basis. Other hazardous conditions exist for those who collect samples in the field. The bottom line is that laboratory supervisors are responsible for the safety of employees working in their labs. By addressing the hazards as fully as possible, using JSAs, SOPs, and good general lab practices and protocols, laboratory supervisors are able to help ensure that workers complete a full day’s work and return home safely.


Becky Soter is the laboratory supervisor for two large wastewater treatment plants and is based in the Chandler, Ariz., office of Severn Trent Services Inc. (Fort Washington, Pa.).


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