Lab Safety Guide: 14 Rules to Follow, According to Data & SciShield Safety Experts
Lab workers are usually vigilant about taking appropriate precautions while performing high-risk activities or working with materials that they recognize as being highly hazardous.
Ironically, it’s during more routine tasks that lab workers become complacent and accidents occur. This is why it’s so important to review basic laboratory safety procedures with your staff — even if they seem experienced, and even if the procedures appear straightforward.
We spoke with SciShield safety expert Kimi Brown, NRCC-CHO, CSP, ARM, to compile 14 general laboratory safety rules and guidelines that should be followed at all times.
Following safety procedures
1. Always wear eye protection when working with chemicals.
About 18,500 eye injuries occur in the workplace every year. That’s more than 50 injuries every day! As basic as it sounds, simply wearing proper eye protection can reduce the risk of these injuries significantly.
Eye protection has come a long way in recent years due to advancements in materials, design, and technology. Modern safety goggles and glasses are made to resist fogging and scratches so that lenses remain clear. They also come in a variety of ergonomic designs that provide a comfortable fit for different face shapes — so there’s no reason not to wear them.
One important caveat from our safety expert Kimi Brown: “Personal protective equipment (PPE) should never be selected without first doing a risk assessment to determine what the necessary kinds of equipment are and what level of protection is needed.”
2. Wear a face shield as well when working with large quantities of hazardous chemicals.
Face shields provide a layer of protection against chemical splashes — especially when used in conjunction with other lab safety equipment like goggles and respirators. Because face shields are often used when working with higher hazard materials and are not usually required and for every activity done in a standard lab, it can be more difficult to identify when they are needed and to enforce their use. This underscores the importance of doing a risk assessment to understand what safety equipment is required. Yet, only around 40% of lab researchers report wearing appropriate PPE at all times.
According to Kimi, it’s an issue of culture — not policy. “A laboratory with a strong safety culture that emphasizes not just compliance with policies, but also promotes personal and community safety responsibility will be best at recognizing risks and preventing accidents.”
3. Always wear gloves in the lab when handling chemicals.
Whether it be an annoying rash or a life-threatening burn, skin contact with harmful chemicals is a major cause of health issues among lab workers. Gloves are a simple solution to this problem, which might help to explain why they are the most common form of PPE used to protect workers from chemical exposure. In fact, more than $12 million is spent on disposable gloves every year, highlighting the crucial role that gloves play in chemistry lab safety.
Appropriate glove selection is key to providing adequate protection, so be sure to consult glove manufacturer's chemical compatibility specifications before deciding which gloves to use.
4. Wear chemical-resistant lab coats or aprons when working with large volumes or highly hazardous chemicals.
In 2020, there were approximately 3,540 cases of chemical burns that required time away from work to recover. To reduce the risk of chemical contact with the skin, lab personnel should wear chemical-resistant lab coats or aprons.
Keep in mind that, while regular lab coats are designed to provide a basic level of protection against minor splashes and spills, they don’t offer the same level of protection as chemical-resistant lab coats or aprons when it comes to handling corrosive substances and hazardous liquids. As with other PPE, a risk assessment can help you determine which type of lab coat is appropriate for the task.
5. Don’t wear clothing that leaves your arms or legs bare and unprotected, or that’s too loose and could get caught in lab equipment.
Around 40% of all workplace injuries can be traced back to work attire and PPE. Of those, a little over 20% of injuries are due to the clothes worn on the job.
In the lab, loose clothing or exposed skin are contributing factors in numerous lab accidents. But we’re not just talking about tank tops and flip flops — poorly fitting PPE can be just as dangerous. Worth noting? Women are especially vulnerable to accidents arising from ill-fitting PPE like gloves and goggles because these items are often designed around men’s measurements. All lab workers should be given the opportunity to try on different sizes and select what will be safe, comfortable, and appropriate for them.
6. Do not work with hazardous chemicals or processes when alone in the lab.
One in five lone workers report struggling to get help after an accident. This alarming statistic underscores the importance of having someone with lab safety expertise present to intervene in an emergency or unsafe situation.
“A written procedure instructing lab workers how to identify and assess hazards is no substitute for keen attention and active supervision by a knowledgeable lab manager or Principal Scientist,” says Kimi, who is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP).
7. Make sure compressed gas cylinders are secured at all times.
The average compressed gas cylinder is 4 feet tall and weighs approximately 80 pounds, and is pressurized up to 2,200 pounds per square inch (psi). To put that in perspective, the average car tire pressure is only around 30-35 psi!
It’s no surprise, then, that compressed gas cylinders cause around 20 deaths and 6,000 injuries each year. Properly securing these cylinders can substantially reduce this risk by preventing them from tipping over or rupturing.
8. Handle any sharps carefully.
Approximately 385,000 sharps injuries occur every year among hospital workers. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: many more sharps injuries occur in other settings, such as industrial labs and research facilities. This statistic highlights the need for careful handling of knives, syringes, and needles to prevent injuries and infections.
Transporting chemicals safely
9. Store and transport chemicals in containers made from appropriate materials.
Around 25% of chemical accidents stem from improper storage. Put another way, nearly 1 in 4 chemical accidents could be avoided by following proper chemical storage procedures. As the size of your chemical inventory increases, making sure chemicals are stored properly becomes a more complex task, highlighting the need for meticulous organization, oversight, and accurate chemical inventory to prevent unintended reactions.
10. Wear appropriate PPE when transporting dangerous chemicals.
Every year, workers suffer more than 190,000 illnesses and 50,000 deaths related to chemical exposures. These exposures can happen not only when working with chemicals, but also while moving them from one location to another within the lab. This is why it’s so important to adhere to chemical lab safety rules like wearing appropriate PPE at all times — not just when performing experiments.
11. Make sure containers are secured when in transport.
Although safe transport procedures should be part of your chemical hygiene plan, this tip isn’t just about following lab safety rules and regulations. Anyone involved in transporting chemicals needs to be aware of the dangers associated with the chemicals they’re transporting and know how hazardous they are.
“The basic recognition of hazards and assessing the level of risk presented by those hazards is not as easy to enforce by simply enforcing a policy or procedure,” says SciShield’s Kimi Brown. “Identifying potential hazards and understanding the likelihood and severity of the risks they present is a skill that requires attention, practice, and mentoring to develop.“
Knowing what emergency procedures are in place
12. Know where the eyewash stations and chemical showers are located in the lab.
In the event of a chemical exposure, time is of the essence. Quick access to emergency equipment like eyewash stations and chemical showers can significantly reduce the severity of chemical exposure incidents, possibly preventing long-term health consequences. Equally important is keeping them accessible and activating eye washes regularly to confirm they are functioning and to flush the pipes. However, only 12% of workplaces inspected by OSHA are in compliance with regulations for emergency eyewash stations and showers. Is yours one of them?
13. Know where the fire extinguishers are located, which type to use, and how to use them properly
Every year, hundreds of workers are killed and thousands more injured by workplace fires and explosions. These tragedies are largely avoidable, as 80% of fires can be put out by fire extinguishers — provided that people know their locations and when and how it is appropriate to use them. These topics should all be covered in your regular safety training.
14. In case of an emergency like a chemical spill or worker injury, notify your direct superior immediately.
Reporting incidents immediately is crucial to prevent the situation from escalating and ensure a rapid response. Yet, nearly 40% of lab researchers have been involved in an accident or sustained an injury that was not reported to an immediate supervisor or principal investigator. Once again, this underscores the importance of building a strong and supportive safety culture.
Even though these 14 basic lab techniques and lab safety tips might seem overly simple, data and experts agree they are fundamental for safeguarding your lab environment. To explore how SciShield can complement your safety efforts, request a consultation with our team.