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One of the most common and important things we Safety Guys deal with is the start-up of new laboratories. As construction is completed, new research buildings open and the labs come online, issues inevitably arise.

Vince McLeod, CIH

Vince McLeod is an American Board of Industrial Hygiene-certified industrial hygienist and the senior industrial hygienist with Ascend Environmental + Health Hygiene LLC in Winter Garden, Florida. He has more...

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Chemical Management Planning for the Laboratory

One of the most common and important things we Safety Guys deal with is the start-up of new laboratories. As construction is completed, new research buildings open, and the labs come online, issues inevitably arise. Related changes we have wrestled with are lab close-outs and new investigators moving to our facility. Common critical issues in these situations are ensuring that proper organization, storage and segregation are provided for the chemicals that will be used and kept in the labs. So this issue’s column will provide fundamental information on managing chemicals in laboratory facilities and offer initial suggestions and guidance for proper chemical handling.

There are literally thousands of chemicals available and new ones being developed every day. In order to plan chemical storage for your lab, it is ideal to begin with a chemical inventory or at least a list of substances anticipated to be used based on the focus of the laboratory’s mission or research. Your job is much easier with the chemical inventory in hand listing the items and quantities that will be used and stored. Without an inventory, or when setting up a general purpose lab, you will have to plan storage areas for each major chemical class (more on these chemical classes further on). Given the sheer number of chemicals available, even with a good inventory, you will probably need a few reference sources on chemicals and their properties. So, let’s get started.

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Chemical information sources and references

Since 1991, federal law has required every laboratory where hazardous chemicals are used to have a written Chemical Hygiene Plan (CHP). The CHP includes the chemical inventory and standard operating procedures for protecting personnel from the health hazards associated with the chemicals present in the lab. If you are lucky enough to have a CHP when an existing lab is moving into a new space, you have a jump-start on planning the chemical handling requirements. Without one, when setting up a new research lab, for example, you will need to do more homework. After checking for a CHP or chemical inventory, the next task is to collect the material safety data sheets (MSDSs) from the vendors or chemical manufacturers. In order to fill the inevitable gaps in the MSDS, we suggest you combine these MSDSs with a good chemical dictionary or two, such as the Merck Index1 or Sax’s Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials.2 You will also want to secure a few quality chemical references such as the NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards3 or the DOT Emergency Response Guidebook,4 or similar compilations.

Material safety data sheets, chemical dictionaries and references like the pocket guide provide essential information on specific chemical substances. Included are data on the physical, chemical and toxicological properties of the substance, along with concise information on handling, storage and disposal. Most of the references mentioned will outline emergency and first aid procedures as well. One other reference that we highly recommend is the National Research Council’s Prudent Practices in the Laboratory: Handling and Management of Chemical Hazards.5 This book contains invaluable information on many topics, including planning experiments, evaluating hazards and assessing the risks associated with waste disposal. It also introduces the concept of Laboratory Chemical Safety Summaries (LCSS) and contains them for 88 commonly encountered chemical substances.

General chemical management, inventory and labeling

Prudent management of any laboratory using dangerous substances begins with a chemical inventory. If you are opening a new laboratory facility, we recommend that you consider how chemicals for that location are going to be managed and tracked prior to setting up any new lab where hazardous chemicals will be used. Establish written procedures for acquiring chemicals and developing the inventory, and ensure that laboratory occupants understand and adhere to them. Keep in mind that in many jurisdictions fire codes and local ordinances may establish maximum limits for both the total quantities and container sizes allowed for the various classes of chemicals.

Chemical inventories can range from simple, such as a listing of each container on an index card, to sophisticated, robust dedicated computer systems. Some advanced systems make use of product bar codes (or allow users to affix their own), thus speeding up data entry and eliminating entry errors. Most laboratories have a computer, and a computer-based system provides many advantages. One is being able to incorporate a tracking system by regular updating of quantities and locations of chemicals. This promotes economical and efficient use by allowing the sharing of chemicals held by different labs or research groups. Accurate inventories are also essential to emergency responders.

Regardless of the type of inventory implemented, here are a few recommended guidelines to follow. We feel in general that each record in the database should correspond to a single container and not merely the chemical itself. Information fields for each record should contain at least the following:

Optional fields recommended:

  • Molecular formula
  • Hazard classification
  • Owner’s name
  • Expiration date

The CAS number is important for ensuring accurate identification in light of different naming conventions and numerous pseudonyms. Received dates and expiration dates ensure that unstable chemicals are not kept beyond their useful life.

In order to maximize the benefits of an inventory system, you must institute a diligent labeling program. Most commercially packaged chemical containers will have adequate labels that include hazard information. However, we recommend that you supplement commercial labels with date received, principal investigator’s or researcher’s name, and storage location, at a minimum.

Also, ensure that any older containers that might be relocated are updated to meet current requirements. And keep an eye out for chemicals that are transferred or repackaged into secondary containers; make sure they are marked with all essential information, just as the original.

Organizing and handling chemicals for a busy research laboratory is a daunting task. Here we have given you three important first steps—collect your MSDS and references; develop your inventory system; institute a labeling program—to get you started down the right path to safe laboratory operation.

Vince McLeod is an American Board of Industrial Hygiene–certified industrial hygienist and the senior industrial hygienist in the University of Florida’s Environmental Health and Safety Division. He has 22 years of occupational health and safety experience at the University of Florida, and he specializes in conducting exposure assessments and health-hazard evaluations for the university’s 2,200-plus research laboratories.

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  1. The Merck Index: An Encyclopedia of Chemicals, Drugs, and Biologicals. Merck & Co., Inc. Rahway, N.J. Latest edition.
  2. Sax’s Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials. John Wiley & Sons. Latest edition.
  3. Online version of NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Latest edition.
  4. http://environmentalchemistry. com/yogi/hazmat/erg/. Online version of the Emergency Response Guidebook. U.S. Department of Transportation. 2004.
  5. Prudent Practices in the Laboratory: Handling and Management of Chemical Hazards. National Research Council. National Academy Press. Washington, D.C. Latest edition.