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Most Common Lab Hazards and How to Avoid Them
Contributor
Written by
Stella Ryne
February 2020
Contributor
Written by
Stella Ryne
February 2020

Working in a laboratory exposes lab personnel to various hazards on a daily basis. There’s a real possibility of exposure to hazardous physical and chemical agents, which is why safety is always priority number one. To avoid these hazards, personnel must become well-acquainted with the most common dangerous situations in the laboratory and how to handle them with care. Here are a few examples that are worth noting.

Fire hazards

Fire is nothing to be played with, as every laboratory worker will tell you. It's all fun and games until someone gets too cozy with the Bunsen burner and starts a fire. This can be detrimental not only to the person in question but the whole laboratory. When dealing with hot surfaces and sources of fire, it's important to stick to safety precautions.

Flammable materials are your biggest risk factor. When they come into contact with fire from a Bunsen burner or chemical reaction, it’s guaranteed to cause trouble. Keeping flammable materials and combustible chemicals sealed and stored will allow you to work with fire without interruption. It’s crucial that you train lab personnel to take care of their burners and inspect for leaks. This will prevent fires from getting out of control when used.

Scrapes and cuts

When working in a laboratory, you will often come into contact with sharp objects. Knives and scalpels are often used for dissection of materials and prepared lab animals. This puts many students and lab personnel at risk of cuts and scrapes. It could end up being a serious cut that requires medical attention, which is why safety protocol with sharp objects is crucial.

There’s also the risk of being injured by broken glass. Beakers and bottles can break by accident and cause the spread of very sharp glass around the laboratory. This glass is very sharp and difficult to clean up completely, so it’s important that personnel know how to handle glass objects and avoid shattered glass when it forms. Certain chemical reactions that increase pressure could break glass when improperly sealed. Paying mind to proper glass precautions and lab equipment is the key to preventing broken glass.

Toxic fumes

Chemical reactions often produce byproducts that are less-than-ideal for the health of laboratory personnel. This includes the production of toxic fumes that mustn’t be inhaled by individuals in the laboratory, as they can be detrimental to their well-being.

To avoid inhalation of hazardous fumes, it’s crucial that personnel take necessary safety precautions into consideration. For one, they need to wear adequate lab masks that filter out certain fumes if they’re present. If masks aren’t necessary due to the nature of the fumes, then the lab needs to be vented properly. Windows should be opened to allow these fumes to air out and the ventilation systems must be clean and functional.

The laboratory should also utilize equipment that measures the amount of toxic fumes in the air during an experiment. Should there be an unexpected amount that could prove to be toxic, personnel should clear the room and allow them to disperse through ventilation before continuing.

Chemical spills

It’s not at all uncommon for chemicals to spill within the laboratory. Accidents happen and personnel can’t be expected to handle everything perfectly. Even in the most ideal laboratory conditions, there will be situations where hazardous chemicals accidentally spill and create a dangerous environment. The key is to have personnel react accordingly and minimize the danger presented by the spilled chemicals.

At the same time, it’s crucial that the laboratory staff practice adequate prevention for spills. It’s better to prevent an accident instead of trying to deal with the consequences. If chemicals are properly locked away in storage facilities, there’s less of a chance that they will leak out and become hazards. Keep in mind, having safe and reliable laboratory equipment also keeps employees safer, as there’s less risk of malfunction. With the right precautions, you can minimize the number of dangerous chemical spills and increase the safety of your lab.

Biological hazards

Laboratories will often handle substances that are hazardous on a biological level. This includes infectious zoonotic agents such as bacteria, viruses, and moulds. These present risks for potential contamination of personnel. There's a very real risk that an employee will be infected by an infectious agent and spread it to other personnel or outside individuals. To prevent this, personnel must take the utmost precaution when handling these zoonotic agents and dispose of lab equipment according to lab regulations.

There’s also a risk of individual health hazards in the form of allergenic substances. These biological agents aren't directly harmful to every employee, but individuals might have a sensitivity to them. If personnel are allergic to certain substances that the laboratory is working with, they must take extra precautions when dealing with them. These risks are often overlooked, leading to potentially dangerous situations for the allergic individual. If possible, personnel should keep clear of these substances. 

Burns

Some sources of heat are less likely to cause a fire in the laboratory, but they can still be a risk for serious burns. Laboratory personnel need to be aware of the substances and chemical reactions that have the highest risk of causing accidental burns. Handling the wrong beaker or bottle could lead to a burn that requires medical attention.

When handling anything that is hot to the touch, personnel must have adequate hand-protection such as thermo-resistant gloves and metal tongs. These should be more than enough to protect their hands from burns. During the handling of these hazardous elements, it’s crucial that they don’t come into contact with unprotected areas of the body. 

Conclusion

Dealing with various kinds of hazards is standard procedure in laboratory environments. Employees will work with substances that pose a risk to the integrity of the laboratory and the health of individuals within it. Because of this, getting to know the dangers and safety precautions that surround these substances is absolutely essential. With the help of adequate laboratory etiquette and protocol, it’s possible to avoid dangerous situations and take care of any hazards that might occur. 

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