We know that running a research lab is a challenge, to say the least. In all the hustle of loading the autosampler, pipetting, pouring, and mixing for research experiments, worker health and safety can be overlooked, inadvertently pushed aside or forgotten—sometimes with dire consequences. Understanding the required Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) programs and recognizing hazards will help you to identify and minimize many of the common safety and health hazards associated with running a research laboratory. This Safety Guys column will assist your navigation of the health and safety maze. We present an overview of the most common hazards encountered in typical research labs. Our hope is that one or more topics might strike a nerve and motivate you to dig deeper to ensure a safe work environment.
OSHA tells employers that we must provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards.” There are many specific OSHA standards that may apply to research laboratories. Most notable is 29CFR1910.1450, “Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories,” also known as the OSHA Lab Standard.1 Other standards include hazard communication, respiratory protection, and electrical and fire safety. In addition, there is a “general duty clause” (Section 5(a)(1) that covers all other recognized hazards for which specific standards may not exist, such as ergonomics and exposures to anesthetic gases or experimental drugs.
Different types of hazards
An important first step in protecting worker health and safety is recognizing workplace hazards. Most hazards encountered fall into three main categories: chemical, biological, or physical. Cleaning agents and disinfectants, drugs, anesthetic gases, solvents, paints, and compressed gases are examples of chemical hazards. Potential exposures to chemical hazards can occur both during use and with poor storage.
Biological hazards include potential exposures to allergens, infectious zoonotics (animal diseases transmissible to humans), and experimental agents such as viral vectors. Allergens, ubiquitous in animal research facilities, are one of the most important health hazards, yet they are frequently overlooked.
The final category contains the physical hazards associated with research facilities. The most obvious are slips and falls from working in wet locations and the ergonomic hazards of lifting, pushing, pulling, and repetitive tasks. Other physical hazards often unnoticed are electrical, mechanical, acoustic, or thermal in nature. Ignoring these can have potentially serious consequences.
The use of chemicals in research laboratories is inevitable, and the potential for harm or injury could be significant if they are misused or mishandled. OSHA has developed two important standards to help mitigate these potential problems. The first is the Hazard Communication standard (29CFR1910.1200) that deals with requirements for employers to inform and train employees on non-laboratory use of chemicals.2 This would apply to things in the lab such as pump oil, Chromerge, or liquid nitrogen used in dewars. Although these chemicals are found in the lab, their use does not meet the criteria for laboratory use.
The second, we’ve already mentioned. Known as the “OSHA Lab Standard,” 29CFR1910.1450 requires laboratories to identify hazards, determine employee exposures, and develop a chemical hygiene plan (CHP) including standard operating procedures. The “lab standard” applies to the laboratory use of chemicals and mandates written Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) addressing the particular hazards and precautions required for safe use. This goes hand in hand with experimental design and planning. Both standards require providing material safety data sheets and employee training.
Biological hazards encompass microbes, recombinant organisms, and viral vectors. They also include biological agents introduced into experimental animals. Health and safety issues such as containment, ability for replication, and potential biological effect are all important. When working with biological hazards, ensure that procedures can be conducted safely. Much of the work with recombinant DNA, acute toxins, and select agents is now regulated by federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Health and Human Services (including the National Institutes of Health). If your facility is conducting research in these areas, you should have an Institutional Biosafety Committee to keep everything in order and running smoothly.
The most prevalent biological hazards, in terms of frequency of occurrence, are simple allergens associated with the use and care of laboratory animals. Health surveys of people working with laboratory animals show that up to 56 percent are affected by animal-related allergies. In a survey of 5,641 workers from 137 animal facilities, 23 percent had allergic symptoms related to laboratory animals. These figures do not include former workers who became ill and could not continue working.
Research facilities inherently have significant physical hazards present. Included here are electrical safety hazards, ergonomic hazards associated with manual material handling and equipment use, handling sharps, and basic housekeeping issues.
Many operations in the lab can result in lab workers assuming sustained or repetitive awkward postures. Examples are eluting a column in a fume hood, working for extended periods in a biosafety cabinet, or looking at slides on a microscope for extended periods. What is found acceptable for brief or occasional use may become problematic if performed for long durations or very frequently. Pain is a good indicator that something is wrong. Conduct work with a neutral, balanced posture. Magnetic assist or programmable pipettes can reduce frequency of hand force required to prevent worker injury.
Sharps containers are ubiquitous in research labs and following a few safety rules can help prevent getting stuck with accident reports. Use only puncture-proof and leakproof containers that are clearly labeled. Train employees never to remove the covers or attempt to transfer the contents. Make sure these containers are only used for “sharps” and that they get replaced when three-fourths full to prevent overfilling.
Many injuries stem from poor housekeeping. Slips, trips, and falls are very common but easily avoided. Start with safe and organized storage areas. Material storage should not create hazards. Bags, containers, bundles, etc., stored in tiers should be stacked, blocked, interlocked, and limited in height so that they are stable and secure against sliding or collapse. Keep storage areas free from an accumulation of materials that could cause tripping, fire, explosion, or pest harborage.
Electrical hazards are potentially life threatening and found much too frequently. First, equip all electrical power outlets in wet locations with ground-fault circuit interrupters, or GFCIs, to prevent accidental electrocutions. GFCIs are designed to “trip” and break the circuit when a small amount of current begins flowing to ground. Wet locations usually include outlets within six feet of a sink, faucet, or other water source and outlets located outdoors or in areas that get washed down routinely. Specific GFCI outlets can be used individually, or GFCIs can be installed in the electrical panel to protect entire circuits.
Another very common electrical hazard is improper use of flexible extension cords. Do not use these as a substitute for permanent wiring. The cord insulation should be in good condition and continue into the plug ends. Never repair cracks, breaks, cuts, or tears with tape. Either discard the extension cord or shorten it by installing a new plug end. Take care not to run extension cords through doors or windows where they can become pinched or cut. And always be aware of potential tripping hazards when using them. Use only grounded equipment and tools and never remove the grounding pin from the plug ends. Also, do not use extension cords in a series—just get the right length of cord for the job.
The use of hanging pendants and electrical outlets are widespread in research lab facilities to help keep cords off of floors and out of the way. Check electrical pendants for proper strain relief and type of box used. The box should be totally closed and without any holes. If it contains knockouts or holes for mounting, it is not the right type for a hanging pendant.
As a final check for possible electrical hazards, look over your lighting. Protect all lights within seven feet of the floor to guard against accidental breakage. Slip plastic protective tubes over florescent bulbs prior to mounting or install screens onto the fixtures.
Research laboratories present many challenges. In the day-to-day bustle of conducting research experiments, worker health and safety can be easily overlooked. However, with proper guidance, a trained eye, and practice in noticing the mundane, we can find and correct many common mistakes and prevent illness or injury. The Internet provides a vast amount of valuable information that can be easily researched. Begin with the OSHA website (www.osha.gov) and chances are you will find what you need. Be diligent and remember: “Safety First!”