Lab Design and Furnishings

Considerations in Planning for Laboratory Hazards

Safety must factor into a lab's day-to-day operations

Many labs today integrate glazing to promote transparency.
Photo courtesy of HDR © 2020 Dan Schwalm

Most people would agree that the concept of “safety first” should always be a priority in the laboratory environment. However, the conversation must extend beyond the concept and find its way into the practical day-to-day operations of the lab. This can be a bit trickier. The discussion of safe protocols and design interventions can sometimes get lost in efforts to promote innovation, out-of-the-box thinking, or creativity. But the truth is, all of these things can and should co-exist with safety. And beginning a new project, renovation, or ground-up construction, is a perfect time to discuss “safety first,” identify opportunities for day-to-day integration, and create collaborative problem-solving when it comes to managing laboratory hazards. How can an effective design process contribute to a healthier, safer laboratory?

It all starts at the beginning

The beginning of a project is loaded with positive energy, goal-setting, and vision. It is the time for honest, open conversations to address current processes, what works and what could be better, and what desired activities are limited in the current environment. This requires the right team, with participants including the user group, EH&S (Environmental Health & Safety), materials management, and professional design representatives (laboratory planner and/or architect). In some cases, the representatives may be wearing more than one hat—however, it is critical to identify the individual roles. It is this team that will work together as the project moves forward, helping to define its success. These initial conversations are about uncovering current hazards and developing a plan to address and minimize the issues as the design develops. It is at this point that clear project goals should be discussed and established. 

Identify, evaluate, and develop

With project goals set, the project moves into design—and there will be some critical pieces of information that will be required by the design professional. The design professional will be primarily focused on engineering exposure controls, or those which remove or separate the person from the hazard. This information may be required for project documentation and project approval by the AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction). The AHJ varies by project type, but is often either a local or state office responsible for enforcing the life safety code. In addition, administrative exposure controls, or those which depend on procedures to limit contact with the hazard, should be shared. Key tasks during this phase include:

  1. Identify the proposed hazardous agents and associated quantities.

The design professional will use this information to address the code standards defined by National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 45, the International Building Code (IBC), and the International Fire Code (IFC).

  1. Identify local supplemental requirements that may be required by the AHJ.

Meet with the AHJ, when possible, to confirm compliance with local code requirements.

  1. Perform an initial risk assessment and identify any proposed laboratory procedure hazards.

Although outside the typical design scope, laboratory safety is equally dependent upon procedures. Identifying these procedures can help identify any special requirements for the built environment. 

  1. Develop a clear laboratory supply/waste management strategy.

The strategy of laboratory supply and waste removal should be informed by identifying specific laboratory needs. There are two areas of focus in this effort. The first is to “right size” the storage of materials within the lab. The second is a safety vs. convenience conversation, which can determine responsibilities within the lab. For example: it may be agreed that waste products will be collected at bench ends, eliminating the need for the waste management staff to enter lab bench zones. 

  1. Determine appropriate precautions as identified by the above risk assessments.

A well-executed risk assessment along with an understanding of the anticipated processes will best inform required design considerations. When provided to the design professional, this information can offer a great opportunity for innovation in the built environment solutions.

  1. Personal protective equipment (PPE)

PPE should be selected based on the hazard being managed and requirements should be discussed and coordinated. PPE should be considered after all engineering and administrative controls have been defined. Once the requirements have been defined,  the laboratory provisions should be convenient and “in your face”—e.g., requirements for safety glasses, lab coats, gloves, etc. should be clearly identified and provisions made convenient.

Design integration

While it is ideal that all of the above discussions have taken place with all of the information collected and understood, it is often the case that the project schedule will drive development of proposed plans in parallel. The process of collaborative design integration offers the opportunity for all vested parties to create shared solutions to laboratory hazards. Codes and regulations, such as IBC, NFPA, and ANSI, can start a project on a path to safety—but it is only a start. Some additional consideration for the lab design may include the following.

  1. Transparency

A popular design feature of many current labs is the integration of glazing to allow vision into the lab. While offering the obvious opportunity for improved light transfer and visitor viewing, it also limits the need for (potentially) untrained staff to enter the lab and improves casual monitoring of lab safety.

  1. Location of storage

While it may be a desire to have everything in arm’s reach, labs are prone to being overstuffed by extra material quantities. Developing a strategy which provides a tiered system such as local (one week supply), regional or “down the hall” (used to replenish the local stores with material up to three months), and remote (or long-term) storage paired with a defined process for re-stocking/ordering may greatly reduce the immediate storage need.

  1. Location of laboratory safety devices

Emergency eyewash and safety shower equipment should be located within 10 seconds (55 feet) of any point within the laboratory, as defined in the ANSI/ISEA Z358.1. Additional considerations can be numerous: facilities may offer supplemental eyewash units at lab sinks, plan the safety shower in highly-visible locations that are consistent in each lab, provide consideration for safe ingress and egress from the lab while the safety device is active, and locate safety equipment devices away from the hazard work area.

  1. Storage of chemicals

The listing of hazardous agents and associated quantities will be further used to define the requirements for storage and help determine chemical compatibility. Local storage is typically located in clearly marked cabinets. Storage on the floor, in fume hoods, or with heat/direct sun exposure should be avoided, discouraged, or—ideally—disallowed.

  1. Power and data distribution

A commonly requested laboratory need is that of additional power and data outlets. A coordinated distribution strategy including proper outlet spaces can reduce the need for extended cord runs and assist in local wire management reducing “snag and pull” hazards. Additional considerations, in accordance with the National Electrical Code (NEC), are required when fire or explosion hazards may exist due to the presence of flammable gases, vapors, liquids, combustible dust, or ignitable fibers.

  1. Hand washing

An often overlooked hazard potential is a lack of dedicated hand-washing. Hand-washing should be provided at convenient locations (possibly collocated with PPE as part of the lab entrance/exit sequence). Because of the risk of contamination, lab sinks should be discouraged for hand washing.

Getting ready for the change

From the project start through design integration, representatives of the users, EH&S, material management, and others collaborate to develop a series of protocols with the shared “safety first” goal. At this point in most projects the considerations, design and overall logic can feel familiar to the collaboration team and is also at the greatest risk. It is critical to success that users are introduced to the new environment.

  1. Evaluate the proficiencies of staff regarding safe practices

Allow for the time and training for staff to understand how the space was designed (the engineering controls) and share the developed narratives (the administrative controls). A change to a new facility can be daunting—and old, familiar ways may not align with the new facility safety goals

  1. Review the safety equipment use

The staff will be naturally curious and will explore on their own if not guided. For example, if a new safety shower type is being used, be sure to review its use or it might just be triggered by a curious user.

  1. Review protocol changes

No one wants to do it wrong.

It never ends

Laboratory safety is an ongoing concern. The role of laboratory design professionals typically comes to an end as the users move in. The life of the project goals transfers to the in-house team that participated in the development of the safety protocols and procedures, hopefully with the same energy and positivity that was shared during the design process. Safety in the lab is dependent on the ability of all involved to continuously make it a priority. 

Fred P. Mason, Jr., RA, LEED AP is an architect, senior laboratory planner, project manager and associate at HDR in Princeton, NJ.