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Accident Prevention through Lab Design

How successful lab design can influence long-term lab safety

Lori Ambrusch, MAUD

Lori Ambrusch, MAUD is the studio manager, science & technology at Ware Malcomb. She studied architecture and urban design at The Pennsylvania State University and Harvard Graduate School of Design....

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A variety of factors must work in harmony to facilitate a safe lab. For instance, standard operating procedures (SOPs) must be in place to establish and maintain safe practices. Emergency shower and eye wash stations need to be installed when chemicals and harmful agents are used, and the space must be functional without compromising safety or research integrity. All of these factors start with, and are made possible by, good lab design. 

Furthermore, programming does not stop at the placement of equipment in the order of operations. It extends to understanding the ebb and flow of staff to determine maximum expected occupancy, locate egress pinch points, and allow accident remediation should one occur. Here are some other examples of lab safety as facilitated by lab design, along with how lab managers can help ensure that the new design maximizes safety.

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Design guidelines focused on safety

An example of procedural and design guidelines acknowledging the importance of the built space in the ability to operate safely within lab and pharmaceutical settings is the creation of USP General Chapter <800>. USP guidelines are intended to keep lab and pharmacy personnel safe, so General Chapter <800> was not the first to identify safe practices for end users and offer guidance for architects and engineers designing those spaces. However, when looked at in comparison to General Chapter <797>, which also addresses interacting with hazardous compounds in a sterile environment, it can be argued that the focus of <800> is more on keeping the lab technician safe, while <797> focuses on keeping the preparation sterile. For example, the additional details describing spatial environments and biological safety cabinet (BSC) specifications go beyond general best practices for safety and sterility and leave less room for interpretation on how a space must be configured to be safe for the occupant. Furthermore, USP guidelines regulate hazardous chemical storage, associated signage, and finish selection to meet decontamination requirements that will help maintain a safe lab environment for its occupants.

There is no limit to the measures that can be taken to prevent accidents within a lab or to the number of systems that can help address accidents.

While the USP resources are excellent for establishing SOPs and design standards, not all lab usages have applicable guideline materials such as these. When necessary, designers and architects should consider other general design guidelines such as the International Building Code, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) codes and standards, and any local regulations put in place by the facility’s Authority Having Jurisdiction.

Functional and safe egress

SOPs can help determine and monitor safe behavior, but if the built environment does not facilitate it, then the procedures will have limited efficacy. A simple yet critical design element to maintain safe lab operations is the design and configuration of egress, both within and out of the lab. An accepted design metric for lab aisles is to have a clearance of five feet; this dimension allows a five-foot accessibility turn radius at the end of lab casework peninsulas and allows two scientists to work back-to-back without bumping into each other. While this width is appropriate for most labs, it is the architect’s responsibility to work with the lab manager and interview the end users to determine whether a wider clearance may be needed. The lab manager can tell the architect if accommodations for large carts or equipment, researchers using wheelchairs, or frequent egress need to be made in the design. For example, if scientists are working back-to-back in an area that others frequently pass through, then a wider aisle may be appropriate to prevent bumping into individuals who may be handling chemicals. Alternatively, perhaps a separate path of egress should be considered, or the back-to-back program could be relocated to a more appropriate space within the lab.

Along these lines, the placement of fume hoods should be carefully considered for two main reasons. Firstly, the movement of people past the hoods can disrupt the ventilation air flows within the hoods, potentially allowing fumes to enter the surrounding space. Additionally, in the case of a fire within the hood, lab occupants must all be able to evacuate quickly and safely; if the hood is located close to the door on an egress path, then people will be forced to walk past an unsafe condition. It is recommended that fume hoods and BSCs be placed away from high-traffic areas and as far from egress paths and exits as possible.

Accident preparedness 

While the above considerations can help prevent accidents within a lab environment, appropriate measures must be in place for when unforeseen circumstances do arise. Many facilities have an Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) division, which can provide valuable insight regarding design standards for the placement of safety showers and eyewash stations, for instance. However, designers should also consider other code documents to ensure the most up-to-date design guidance is being followed. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration states that emergency showers must be on the same level as the hazard, on a path free from obstruction and well-lit, and must be reached within 10 seconds of movement. Ensuring that eyewashes are readily available is also crucial. Given their smaller space allocation and cost of installation, placing eyewash stations at each clean sink is a relatively low-cost way to increase access to them.

SOPs can help determine and monitor safe behavior, but if the built environment does not facilitate it, then the procedures will have limited efficacy.

Two additional items to consider are spill kits and fire extinguishers; while many labs have both, the placement can often be improved for easy access, or redundant units can be added so users don’t have to walk through a hazardous area to retrieve them. Furthermore, the type of fire extinguisher selected must not only meet NFPA code requirements, but it should also account for the types of chemicals and substances that will be used within the lab. While these items often are seen as afterthoughts once the design is established, they should be integrated into the beginning of programming to ensure the final space is both functional and safe.

There is no limit to the measures that can be taken to prevent or address accidents within the lab. However, building codes and industry guidelines have been established based on commonly witnessed issues, and implementing these practices is the first step to ensuring a safe and functional design. A thorough programming process with the lab manager and end users at the beginning of the design project can help the architect and engineers determine potential hazards and allow them to design systems accordingly. Furthermore, discussing SOPs with the scientists and EHS team can ensure the design meets the user needs while maintaining best practices. Continuing education and open dialogue are crucial so that a lab can be designed for long-term success and safety.