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Lab Health and Safety

How to Understand, Comply With, and Stay on Top of EH&S Regulations for Laboratories

Researchers should have a working understanding of the fundamental requirements and concepts of the laws and regulations that affect laboratories across the country

Vince McLeod, CIH

Sometimes, to laboratory managers, it might seem that at every turn we run into another environmental, health, or safety regulation. Indeed, in recent years lab managers may have noticed an increase in the number of laws, regulations, and ordinances—federal, state, and local—that affect our laboratories.

This trend is at least partially due to an apparent ambivalence or laissez-faire attitude toward environmental, health, and safety (EH&S) regulations, although admittedly this seems much more prevalent in the academic scientific community than in the private research sector, especially in light of a proliferation of high-profile, serious accidents and injuries, and more than a few fatalities.

Another reason is the stepped-up efforts of individual states and even local jurisdictions to address regional and local issues that have risen to the forefront. However, this article will focus on the larger—and more crucial—picture at the federal level.

We strongly believe that all researchers should have a basic knowledge and working understanding of the fundamental requirements and concepts of the most important laws and regulations that affect laboratories across the country. The most important are the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories, known as the OSHA Laboratory Standard (29CFR1910.1450),1 and Hazard Communication, known as HazCom (29CFR1910.1200),2 and the hazardous waste regulation outlined in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA, 40CFR1910.260-273),3 promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

With that said, it is not our intent to go into a long discussion on the major principles of these complex and lengthy federal regulations. We will instead provide a brief overview and then focus on successful approaches, methods, and systems that we have seen, in order to help laboratory managers better understand, implement, and stay up to date on these essential regulations.

OSHA Laboratory Standard

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s regulation for laboratory safety was finalized in 1990 for the purpose of protecting workers from chemical, biological, physical, and other safety hazards. The intent was to address hazards particular to laboratory practices and to fill in the gaps not covered by existing, specific OSHA standards for general industry.

Central to the OSHA Laboratory Standard are a written Chemical Hygiene Plan (CHP) and the designee responsible for its implementation and updating, the chemical hygiene officer (CHO). The CHP must be tailored to reflect the specific chemical hazards present in the laboratory where it is to be used. Distilled to its essentials, the CHP has five major elements that employers are required to address:

  1. Identify hazards and develop standard operating procedures that include general and laboratory-specific protocols for work with hazardous chemicals.
  2. Determine and implement exposure control measures and monitoring when appropriate, including engineering controls and personal protective equipment, to reduce workers’ exposure to hazardous chemicals.
  3. Determine and implement specific measures to ensure proper and adequate performance of protective equipment such as fume hoods, etc.
  4. Provide information and training to ensure workers are apprised of all hazards in their work areas. Workers must receive training regarding the Laboratory Standard, the CHP, and other laboratory safety practices, including exposure detection, physical and health hazards associated with chemicals, and protective measures.
  5. Provide for medical consultations and examinations when exposure to a hazardous chemical has occurred.


The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s regulation for laboratory safety was first issued in 1983. This original standard requires assessing the potential hazards of chemicals, and communicating information concerning those hazards and appropriate protective measures to employees.

Similar to the Laboratory Standard, the OSHA HazCom standard also requires a written plan, or Hazard Communication Plan (HCP). Condensed to the basics, the HCP also has five principal requirements:

  1. Develop and maintain an inventory of all hazardous chemicals kept and used in the workplace.
  2. Ensure all containers of chemicals are properly labeled.
  3. Collect and maintain current safety data sheets (SDSs) for all chemicals to which workers may be exposed.
  4. Develop and implement worker training programs regarding hazards of chemicals to which they may be exposed and the appropriate protective measures to use when handling these chemicals.
  5. Heed hazardous chemical warnings on container labels and in SDSs, which manufacturers and importers must provide to users.

RCRA: Managing hazardous wastes

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was enacted in 1976, giving the EPA the authority to control hazardous wastes “from cradle to grave,” i.e., from the time and point of creation to the final disposal. The regulations are vast and complex, covering generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal. In 1984, the federal Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (HSWAs) were added, which focused on waste minimization, phasing out land disposal, and corrective actions for releases.

Related Article: What Does the 2-For-1 Rule Mean for US Labs?

As with the OSHA Laboratory Standard and HazCom, a very brief distillation of the main principles is presented below. However, given the breadth and complexity of RCRA, we strongly recommend consulting with knowledgeable and experienced professionals unless the specific expertise is available in-house.

Hazardous waste regulations under RCRA fall into four general areas:

  1. Identification and determination of all generated wastes. This is accomplished with knowledge of the specific process generating the waste, waste definitions, contaminant lists, and waste characteristics, as laid out in 40CFR Part 261.
  2. Storage and labeling of waste. 40CFR Part 262 addresses proper containers, packaging, labeling, placarding, quantities, and accumulation times.
  3. Transporting waste. All transporters of hazardous waste must be permitted and licensed by the EPA. Strict guidelines cover waste packaging, labeling, and placarding. A comprehensive manifest must be compiled and must accompany the shipment from its pickup at the generator to the final treatment and/or disposal site.
  4. Disposal of waste. As with transporters, all treatment, storage, and disposal facilities must be permitted and licensed by the EPA. Each shipment manifest should be carefully checked. After final action, a manifest copy, signed by all, is returned to the generator to complete full documentation of cradle-to-grave handling.

Management options for environmental, health, and safety regulations

Ethical laboratory operation, whether in an academic, research and development, or production setting, needs to encourage excellence and efficiency while staying within regulatory boundaries. Too often, highly trained, world-renowned scientists, researchers, and managers, although supporting prudent environmental, health, and safety rules, feel overly burdened.

Basic laws protecting the environment, public health, and workers, developed over the course of years and even decades, reflect state, local, and congressional concerns and societal values, and generally have broad public support. In addition, we must recognize the virtual impossibility of precisely characterizing every risk and must understand that EH&S regulations attempt to strike a balance and rely on employers to apply prudence in protecting their employees.

All of us managing and working in laboratories must also recognize that violating EH&S laws not only imposes unnecessary risks to those in our employ, but also can affect the surrounding community and result in serious consequences, including civil and criminal penalties. Furthermore, EH&S abuses can damage the institution’s reputation and corrode community confidence, potentially resulting in significant economic impacts, especially given today’s arena of social media.

So, how best to stay the course and keep up to date with all these regulations? Below are a few methods, each with its own pros and cons:

  • Hire specialized consultants. They can be cost-effective in the long run: expensive at first, but then used only when needed afterward. Be sure to check credentials and experience, and carefully define your scope of work.
  • Purchase specific management software. As with consultants, your up-front cost could be high and you would need to include an up-to-date subscription service followed by training for those tasked with using and maintaining the databases. One downside is that available packages may not cover all aspects needed.
  • Hire EH&S staff. Depending on your institution’s mission and activities, it may be difficult to cover everything with a single staffer. Yet multiple staff, each with a specific concentration, obviously would increase the cost. Experienced individuals with broad education and training are hard to find and can be expensive. However, in-house staff develop intimate knowledge and have the ability to keep on top of day-to-day operations and needs, and in the long run may become very cost-effective. Analyze these costs compared with the cost and frequency of using outside consultants.
  • Assign/designate duties and responsibilities to existing staff. We know employees constantly moan about already having their plates full. And in today’s economic climate, businesses are always striving to do more with less. Therefore, going this route necessitates much forethought and careful negotiation. Existing staff may have operational knowledge and experience, but may need supplemental training on regulatory applicability.
  • Build and develop an EH&S committee. We have seen this method work well in certain situations and help lighten individual loads. The makeup of the committee must be chosen carefully, however, taking into consideration knowledge, experience, and capability. Should the committee hit a dead end, supplementing with training and/or consultants usually solves the problem.
  • Operate in reaction mode. Obviously, this method is not recommended. Your organization may go unnoticed for a while, but when you do show up on the regulator’s radar, it is over. If you are currently in this mode, please switch immediately to one of those above.

Regardless of the method (or combination of methods) you decide on, we want to strongly encourage you to do the following to assist in setting up and maintaining your EH&S program:

  • Seriously consider getting involved in the regulatory process. This is the best way to influence the development of and changes to regulations. Regulators actually welcome collaboration, and your insights as one of those directly impacted are unique and important.
  • Consider joining leading professional organizations and key trade associations, such as the American Industrial Hygiene Association, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, the American Chemical Society, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, and others specific to your industry. These organizations will keep you informed about the latest developments in addition to affording access to many like-minded professionals.
  • Peruse and search the Federal Register occasionally. Changes to regulations and other notices are published daily in the Federal Register, which can be accessed publicly on


1. Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Washington, D.C. 

2. Hazard Communication, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Washington, D.C. 

3. Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Environmental Protection Agency. Washington, D.C., 2017.

4. Federal Register—Daily Journal of the United States Government, Office of the Federal Register. Washington, D.C.