Environmental health and safety (EHS) in the laboratory encompasses a variety of topics that should be integrated into the overall lab safety program. EHS focuses on the physical environment aspects of the lab, like ventilation and air flow, engineering controls, and life safety (fire prevention) regulations. Prioritizing EHS elements in the laboratory creates an environment where fewer incidents will occur and where employees will be safer.
Monitoring the ventilation in the lab workspace is a key safety initiative that every EHS program should include. Many laboratories are designed to have a specific number of room air exchanges as well as directional airflow (from uncontaminated areas to contaminated areas). Many older air handling systems may not perform as well as when they were installed, and in some lab spaces, the air exchanges no longer meet industrial guidelines. Anatomic pathology areas, for example, should have 12 to 16 air exchanges per hour. Fewer than that can lead to unwanted staff exposure to chemical fumes. A solid EHS program will include regular (at least annual) monitoring of the lab’s air handling systems and room air exchanges to ensure safe and optimal performance.
Another important method for checking the lab ventilation is the use of vapor badge monitoring. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires laboratories that use hazardous chemicals such as xylene and formaldehyde to monitor the exposure of their employees. If baseline vapor readings are within established limits, no further recordings are necessary unless there are process changes, instrument changes, or complaints involving the use of these chemicals. However, performing at least annual monitoring of exposure to these chemicals can be a good secondary way to ensure room ventilation and other engineering controls (like chemical fume hoods) remain adequate.
Prioritizing EHS elements in the laboratory creates an environment where fewer incidents will occur and where employees will be safer.
If proper room ventilation cannot be achieved or if specific lab tasks create high hazards to the employees, then respiratory protection must be implemented. Respirators protect the employee from contaminated or oxygen-deficient air. Two classes of respirators are common; air-purifying respirators, which use filters to remove contaminants from the air you breathe, and atmosphere-supplying respirators, which provide clean air from an uncontaminated source. These types of respirators can also be classified further as tight-fitting or loose-fitting. Tight-fitting respirators need a tight seal between the respirator and the face and/or neck of the user to work properly. Make sure staff are properly trained to select and use the correct type of respirator based on the needs in the department.
Oversight of an ergonomics program is another vital function of laboratory EHS management. Preventing staff musculoskeletal disorders from poor work practices and inappropriate work bench arrangements can save managers from employee absences and injuries. Perform ergonomics assessments of departmental work areas and whenever there are employee complaints involving ergonomics issues. Be sure microscope and computer workstations are arranged for good body mechanics, and train staff to take numerous breaks from repetitive or long-term tasks.
Noise studies should be included in the laboratory ergonomics monitoring. Baseline noise studies should be taken initially and when instrument or process changes occur that can affect sound levels in the department. Decibel levels can be measured using a noise meter, and the time weighted average (TWA) is calculated using multiple readings throughout the workday. If the noise TWA is greater than 85 decibels, OSHA requires the employer to institute a hearing conservation program that includes ongoing noise monitoring, hearing testing, the use of hearing protectors if needed, and training for staff about the program itself. Most laboratories, however, are not environments that produce noise that exceeds OSHA’s limit. If high noise levels are encountered, it is likely that the source of the noise can be determined and mitigated. Fixing broken equipment or installing sound absorbent barriers can often solve high noise issues in the department.
Life Safety (fire safety) is part of EHS management, and it is also a required element for any laboratory safety program. Regulations regarding fire safety in the laboratory come from multiple agencies, including OSHA, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and the International Fire Code (IFC).
NFPA 45 (Standard on Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals) lists guidance for the storage of flammable chemicals in the lab. This guidance requires that any flammable liquids that must be stored at cool temperatures be placed inside of a unit (refrigerator or freezer) that is designated by the manufacturer as explosion-proof or safe for the storage of flammable liquids. These special units must be labeled with signage indicating that flammables may be stored within. The standard even requires that refrigerators and freezers that are not safe for such storage should be labeled as well. The signs might say, “Danger: not for flammable material storage.” This means that every unit in a lab where flammable chemicals are used should have some sort of label on it indicating what type of storage is allowed. Cold storage units may be modified for safe flammable storage, and these need special labels as well.
The use of flammable storage cabinets is addressed in NFPA 45 as well. In general, if a lab has more than one gallon of a flammable liquid in each 100 square foot space of the department (two gallons if there is an automatic fire extinguisher system), those chemicals should be kept inside of a flammable cabinet. Chapter 57 of the International Fire Code (IFC) requires that these cabinets have well-fitted, self-closing doors.
The IFC has not been adopted in every US state (although it has been adopted in 42 of them), and your local fire authority has the final say in the requirements. It is a good idea to purchase flammable cabinets with self-closing doors. There are door-closing adapter that can be purchased, but in some cases, the use of these adapter may damage the cabinet door and inactivate the function and warranty for the cabinet.
Firefighting equipment should be available in the laboratory, and OSHA requires staff to have training to use that equipment if it is provided. The best training includes a regular hands-on return demonstration and periodic fire drills. Confirming staff can use fire extinguishers and know how to respond to a fire situation may be one of the most important safety training policies you can implement. Fire blankets are typically not required per local fire code, but if they are in place, be sure staff is aware of how to use them should the need arise.
When an uncontrolled lab fire event occurs, staff will need to evacuate and prevent the spread of the fire. It is important to keep aisles clear and wide in the department for safe travel, and all exit routes and stairwells should be checked to make sure no obstructions exist. Staff should be aware of their primary and secondary evacuation routes, and all exits should be adequately marked. Make sure employees know to close fire and smoke doors during a fire situation.
Confirming staff can use fire extinguishers and know how to respond to a fire situation may be one of the most important safety training policies you can implement.
The laboratory environment
The laboratory is a dynamic environment. Different people work in many areas during different shifts. If the area is not set up properly and monitored for ongoing safety, accidents will happen. These lab accidents can cause damage, cost money with fines and repairs, and worst of all, can hurt people.
Monitoring the lab EHS program as well as the entire physical environment creates value for the overall lab safety program, and it helps to create a strong safety culture among the staff. Have staff actively involved in the EHS monitoring. Check for clear passageways, proper storage of flammable materials, and the ergonomic set up of the various workstations. Other items should be checked as well; look for frayed electrical cords, and check that tanks of compressed gas are individually chained or prevented from tipping. Look for ceiling tiles that show signs of leaks, and make sure lights are working and that fire doors are not propped open. Solid oversight of the lab environment and proper management of the EHS safety program can optimize the work of lab leaders and it can help to keep the valued employees safe as well.