Managing a research lab presents many challenges. Modern research laboratories contain many types of complex equipment such as autosamplers, autoclaves, mass spectrometers, chromatographs, sonicators, etc. During the busy workday, worker health and safety can get overlooked, sometimes with dire consequences. This article aims to provide understanding of the basic Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations and programs addressing recognized hazards in the lab. It will help lab managers to identify and minimize many of the common safety and health hazards associated with running a research laboratory.
The overriding tenant of worker safety is the OSHA requirement that employers provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards.” This is known as the “general duty clause” (Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act, which covers all recognized hazards, but especially those for which specific standards may not exist, such as ergonomics and exposures to anesthetic gases or experimental drugs. There are many specific OSHA standards that apply to research laboratories; most notable is 29CFR1910.1450, occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals in laboratories, also known as the OSHA Lab Standard. Other standards include hazard communication (1910.1200), respiratory protection (1910.134), electrical and fire safety, and others.
Laboratory hazard types
The first step in protecting worker health and safety is to recognize workplace hazards. Most hazards encountered fall into three main categories: chemical, biological, or physical. Cleaning agents and disinfectants, drugs, anesthetic gases, solvents, paints, and compressed gases are examples of chemical hazards. Potential exposures to chemical hazards can occur both during use and with poor storage.
Biological hazards include potential exposures to allergens, infectious zoonotics (animal diseases transmissible to humans), and experimental agents such as viral vectors. Allergens, ubiquitous in animal research facilities, are one of the most common health hazards, yet frequently overlooked.
The final category contains the physical hazards associated with research facilities. The most obvious are slips and falls from working in wet locations and the ergonomic hazards of lifting, pushing, pulling, and repetitive tasks. Other physical hazards that are often unnoticed include electrical, mechanical, acoustic, or thermal hazards.
Use of chemicals in research laboratories is inevitable for the most part. Misuse or mishandling provides the potential for significant harm or injury. The most important OSHA standard to help mitigate these potential problems is the Hazard Communication standard, which deals with employers’ requirements to inform and train employees on non-laboratory use of chemicals. This would apply to things in the lab such as pump oil, Chromerge, or liquid nitrogen used in Dewars. Although these chemicals are found in the lab, their use does not meet the criteria for laboratory use.
The second most important one has already been mentioned, known as the “OSHA Lab Standard,” 29CFR1910.1450. It requires laboratories to identify hazards, determine employee exposures, and develop a chemical hygiene plan (CHP) including standard operating procedures (SOPs) The “lab standard” applies to the laboratory use of chemicals and mandates written SOPs addressing the particular hazards and precautions required for safe use. This includes experimental design and planning. Both standards require maintaining material safety data sheets and providing employee training.
Biological hazards involve work with microbes, recombinant organisms, and viral vectors, as well as biological agents introduced into experimental animals. Health and safety issues such as containment, ability for replication, and potential biological effect are all vital. When working with biological hazards, ensure procedures can be conducted safely. Much of the work with recombinant DNA, acute toxins, and select agents is now regulated by federal agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Health and Human Services, including the National Institutes of Health. If your facility is conducting research in these areas you should have an institutional biosafety committee to keep everything in order and running smoothly.
The most prevalent biological hazards, in terms of frequency of occurrence, are simple allergens associated with the use and care of laboratory animals. Health surveys of people working with laboratory animals show that up to 56 percent are affected by animal-related allergies. In a survey of 5,641 workers from 137 animal facilities, 23 percent had allergic symptoms related to laboratory animals. These figures do not include former workers who became ill and could not continue to work.
Research facilities inherently have significant physical hazards present. Included here are electrical safety hazards, ergonomic hazards associated with manual material handling and equipment use, handling sharps, and basic housekeeping issues.
Many laboratory operations can result in workers performing sustained or repetitive awkward postures. Examples are working for extended periods in a biosafety cabinet, or looking at slides with a microscope for extended periods. What is found acceptable for brief or occasional use may become problematic if performed for long durations or very frequently. Pain is a good indicator something is wrong. Conduct an ergonomic work survey and ensure a neutral balanced posture for all tasks. Magnetic assist or programmable pipettes can reduce frequency or hand force required and prevent worker injury.
Sharps containers are common in research labs, and following a few safety rules can help prevent getting stuck with accident reports. Use only puncture-proof and leakproof containers that are clearly labeled. Train employees never to remove the covers or attempt to transfer the contents. Make sure they are only used for “sharps” and they get replaced when three-fourths full to prevent overfilling.
Many injuries stem from poor housekeeping. Slips, trips, and falls are very common, yet easily avoided. Start with safe and organized storage areas. Material storage should not create hazards. Bags, containers, bundles, etc., stored in tiers should be stacked, blocked, interlocked, and limited in height so that they are stable and secure against sliding or collapse. Keep storage areas free from accumulation of materials that could cause tripping, fire, explosion, or pest harborage.
Electrical hazards are potentially life threatening yet found much too frequently. Equip all electrical power outlets in wet locations with ground fault circuit interrupters, or GFCI, to prevent accidental electrocutions. GFCIs are designed to “trip” and break the circuit when a small amount of current begins flowing to ground. Wet locations usually include outlets within six feet of a sink, faucet, or other water source, and outlets located outdoors or in areas that get washed down routinely. Specific GFCI outlets can be used individually or installed in the electrical panel to protect entire circuits.
Another very common electrical hazard is improper use of flexible extension cords. Do not use these as a substitute for permanent wiring. The cord insulation should be in good condition and continue into the plug ends. Never repair cracks, breaks, cuts, or tears with tape—either discard the extension cord or shorten by installing a new plug end. Take care not to run extension cords through doors or windows where they can become pinched or cut, and always be aware of potential tripping hazards when using them. Use only grounded equipment and tools, and never remove the grounding pin from the plug ends. Also, do not use extension cords in series; just get the right length cord for the job.
Use of hanging pendants and electrical outlets are widespread in research lab facilities to help keep cords off floors and out of the way. Check electrical pendants for proper strain relief and type of box used. The box should be totally closed and without any holes. If it contains knockouts or holes for mounting, it is not the right type for a hanging pendant.
As a final check for possible electrical hazards, examine your lighting. Protect all lights within seven feet of the floor to guard against accidental breakage. Slip plastic protective tubes over florescent bulbs prior to mounting or install screens onto the fixtures.