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Guidance and Consistency Ensure Effective PPE

When are lab coats necessary? When should gloves be worn? What types are best?

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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Modern laboratories today contain serious threats to worker health and safety. Whether from biological agents or blood-borne pathogens, toxic or hazardous chemicals, or physical hazards from dangerous equipment such as autoclaves, centrifuges, or sterilizers, we, as lab managers, know that accidents happen. Here are a couple of examples from our recent experience:

A researcher using strong nitric acid suffered only minor burns thanks to his knowledge of proper procedures and the location of a nearby safety shower, and quick action by fellow lab workers. While pouring acid from a standard four-liter glass container into a smaller container, he spilled acid on his lap. He quickly made it to the safety shower in the hall outside the lab with assistance and proceeded to remove his shirt and pants while drenching himself under the shower. Although his clothes were destroyed, he received only minor burns to his stomach and upper thighs.

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A researcher was burned on the hand and upper arm when she accidently knocked over a Bunsen burner while sterilizing samples in a clean flow bench. Alcohol quickly spread over the bench work surface and ignited the researcher’s lab coat sleeve as she tried to wipe up the spill. Fortunately, the safety shower was nearby and the coat sleeve was quickly extinguished.1

The two incidents above are all too common, but serve to demonstrate a point. In the first, no lab coat was being worn. In the second, a lab coat was being worn, but gloves were not being worn. When are lab coats necessary? When should gloves be worn? What types are best? We hope to answer these and other questions in this month’s Safety Guys column.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) excellent publication, Laboratory Safety Guidance,2 discusses the preferred hierarchy of controls. Prioritized from most effective to least effective, these are:

  • Engineering controls
  • Administrative controls
  • Work practices
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE)

Examples of engineering controls include ventilation, machine guarding, biosafety cabinets, ventilated work stations, and anesthetic gas scavenging systems. Administrative controls simply modify workers’ schedules to minimize potential exposures. Work practices are designed to limit or reduce duration, frequency, or intensity of potential exposures. Examples would include substitution of less hazardous materials or changing procedures to safer methods. PPE, known as our last line of defense and the least effective, requires use of protective gear or equipment to put a barrier between the worker and the hazard.

Although controlling a hazard at its source is the first choice, engineering controls are not perfect. PPE is our last defense because it means the hazard is actually present—and without PPE, hazardous exposure or injury will likely occur.

Protection concepts are built into current OSHA standards, are found in 29 CFR 1910 Subpart I, and are covered by at least 11 separate standards. We are focused on 29 CFR 1910.132, Personal Protective Equipment.3

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 states our mission simply, “To assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women.” The PPE standard states employers must determine whether PPE should be used to protect their workers, and if PPE is to be used, requires documentation that the equipment selection is based on the hazard, that employees are provided properly fitted equipment, that they are trained on the equipment assigned, and that the equipment is kept in good repair.3

PPE determination

The first step in identifying hazards and proper controls is conducting a thorough job hazard analysis (JHA). A thorough JHA will identify the potential risks associated with each particular job and devise ways to control or eliminate them before an injury or accident occurs. The JHA technique looks at the individual tasks connected to a job and identifies controls for the hazards in each job step. When the hazard cannot be removed or controlled adequately, for example, unexpected splashes or spills, PPE must be used. The JHA uses a system that considers each body area: eyes, face, head, hands, feet, ears/hearing, respiratory system, and whole body.

Determining exposure from toxic materials is usually performed and entails air sampling and analysis that is best conducted by a safety and health professional such as an industrial hygienist.

Basic laboratory PPE

We recommend setting basic PPE requirements for all laboratories. Included are long pants, closed-toe shoes, lab coats, and safety glasses. The primary piece is the lab coat, and the selection must be based on expected hazards. We would recommend serious consideration of new-generation, multihazard lab coats. Those offering both flame resistance and chemical splash protection cover many potential common incidents and are economical.

Add gloves to your basic outfit if prevention of skin contact and contamination is needed. Consult chemical compatibility charts (available from all major chemical glove manufacturers or distributors) before deciding on type and material.

A note on PPE fitting

Remember that employees need a choice of several different PPE options (that meet the safety requirements) in order to select for personal comfort and preference. If PPE does not fit properly, its use and effectiveness are often drastically reduced. OSHA provides good assistance through the use of eTools and other guidance.4

PPE use training

Workers need to know when PPE is necessary and what tasks or areas require use of PPE. This should be spelled out in your JHA and list all the PPE required for specific tasks. When training employees on PPE use, be sure to show how to properly check, put on, take off, adjust, and wear the assigned PPE. Training should also cover the limitations of PPE. PPE gear is specific for the anticipated hazard(s). Misunderstanding or confusion can lead to more serious injuries, or worse. Workers must have a thorough understanding before using any PPE.

Remember to include proper care, maintenance, useful life, and disposal of PPE. OSHA inspectors will often quiz workers to see whether they understand why they are wearing PPE, the hazards they are protecting themselves against, and how they care for and store their equipment.

Follow-up, auditing, and revising

Proper maintenance of PPE is paramount to protecting the worker. Poorly maintained or dirty equipment puts workers in greater danger. Conduct regular checks of workers’ PPE to ensure equipment is handled appropriately.

Monitoring or auditing the program on an ongoing basis is very important. Thoroughly investigate any accidents or near-misses involving the use of PPE. Use findings to support safety committee meetings and discuss case studies.

PPE is very effective in preventing injury. But it is also the most vulnerable to failure, as it relies on consistent and proper use by the worker every time. If you devise and apply solid PPE guidance, your employees will maximize protection.


1. Lab Safety Incidents, personal communique, Environmental Health and Safety Division, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

2. Laboratory Safety Guidance, US Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Washington, DC, 2011. 

3. Personal Protective Equipment, US Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Washington, DC. 

4. Eye and Face Protection eTools, eMatrix, Expert Advisors and v-Tools, US Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Washington, DC.